SLIPPERY ROCK OR SLIPPERY SLOPE? When considering the water wars now erupting throughout the South Coast, the question shwinging most immediately to mind is this: Is that saber out of your pants or are you just unhappy to see me?
Of all the noise emanating from swords and scabbards, the most compelling involves the Goleta Water District’s declaration of legal warfare last week against Dick Wolf — the one-man media empire who gave unto the world TV melodrama Law & Order — over Wolf’s plans to sell water from his Slippery Rock Ranch in Goleta to the parched lawns and wilted shrubs of Montecito.
In recent weeks, Wolf and his wife have made it a point to be well-nigh ubiquitous. They showed up at the ribbon-cutting-and-shovel-digging ceremony for the city’s new children’s museum across the tracks from Santa Barbara’s Ye Olde Railroad Depot. Wolf was recently appointed chair of the board for the Bellosguardo Foundation. That’s Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider’s problematic pet project to convert what’s long been the vacant robber baron mansion — located on the waterfront across from the bird refuge and built for said baron’s recently dead and daffy daughter — into a world-class art museum. Most recently, the Wolfs’ Montecito manse was this month’s art-n-architecture pin-up in Santa Barbara Magazine, journal of choice for the can’t-be-too-rich-or-thin set.
Lining up against Wolf — mano a mano and eyeball to eyeball — is John McInnes, general manager of the Goleta Water District, whose other claim to fame is that he plays bass for the band Claude Hopper, itself one of Santa Barbara’s poorest-kept musical secrets. The bone of contention between Wolf and McInnes is the untapped ocean of water lying underneath the wonderfully named Slippery Rock Ranch — 780 acres located in the foothills above Goleta — that Wolf bought from the Schulte clan back in 2008.
As has been reported, Wolf wants to make that water portable and profitable as well as merely potable. He’s offering the Montecito Water District enough water from his Slippery Rock Ranch to get Montecito out of its desperate shortage. Actually, Wolf has stayed strategically out of the limelight, preferring to assign land-use agent Mark Lloyd and attorney Steve Amerikaner to make things happen. In the dangerous intersection between development and politics, Lloyd and Amerikaner rank as five-star players. Where most mortals struggle with the rudiments of tic-tac-toe, these two play 3D chess. More alarming, they’re smooth, charming, and ingratiating about it, too.
McInnes has assigned himself the role of skunk at Montecito’s garden party, fly flapping in Wolf’s ointment. He contends that the water basin underneath Wolf’s property — known poetically to hydro-geologists as “The Chalice” — is geologically “connected” to Goleta’s underground storage basin. According to McInness, that means Wolf can’t draw water out of The Chalice without sucking the proverbial milkshake out of Goleta’s groundwater basin in the process. That’s something up with which McInnes — as line-in-the-sand defender of 87,000 Goletans’ water supply — will neither abide nor put. It should be understood that Wolf is proposing to put McInnes’s claims to an empirical test. The existing evidence is iffy enough to make it debatable. If in settling this debate, Montecito can buy 1,000 acre-feet of water for $500,000, so much the better.
Stylistically, McInnes tends to be all elbows and knees, having learned his political kung fu while working for former county administrator Mike Brown, famous still for his spit-flying rages. Last week, McInnes filed a lawsuit against Wolf and his Slippery Rock Ranch seeking a judicial declaration that the sanctity of Goleta’s water rights trump Wolf’s ability to do as he pleases with the water lying underneath his own land. How a judge might rule, I do not know, but from the outside looking in, Goleta’s claim seems to fall somewhere between overreach and a stretch. In the excruciatingly calibrated world of water rights, the legal entitlements of “Overlying landowners” — which Wolf is — clearly trump those of “Appropriators” — which is what Goleta is. Should the case go to trial, maybe Wolf can use it as a plot for one of his spinoff shows. But in the meantime, he ain’t backing down. In fact, he’s upped the ante. Last week, his agents showed up at the Montecito Water Board meeting to propose a specific deal. And Wolf is offering to cover any legal bills Montecito incurs should Goleta get too agitated and frisky. Next week, the water board is slated to respond.
As a practical matter — as distinct from dramatic spectacle — the Slippery Rock deal ranks as a genuine head-scratcher. Given the crying need for locally originated water supplies, the appeal is obvious and overwhelming. But given the precedent such an arrangement could set, maybe Wolf should rechristen his Goleta ranch “Slippery Slope.” If Wolf, Lloyd, and Amerikaner can help Montecito in its hour of need, what’s to stop them from also “helping” out many of the proposed developments struggling to get off the drawing boards along the Gaviota Coast? Many of these proposed developments are currently hamstrung by marginally reliable water supplies. Many happen to be represented by Lloyd and Amerikaner. Coincidence?
For California to survive this and future droughts, more inventive and efficient management of groundwater basins is essential. That’s reality. In this vein, Slippery Rock could be the shape of things to come. But the conversion of private ranches into private water companies could also give rise to serious mischief at the expense of coastal preservation. Any way you do the math, land + water = development. Always. That’s even more true when breathtaking ocean views are involved. As a matter of law and technology, any water wheeling needed to bring this ominous scenario to life would require the active cooperation of some existing water agencies. And yes, these agencies are publically owned, operated, and accountable. But water districts can be taken over. Just like water, money always finds its own level. In the meantime, speak softly, but carry a sharp sword.