Water Shortage Boils Over in Montecito
And Are Steelhead Stealing from Paying Customers?
Tom Mosby doesn’t look or sound anything like comedian Rodney Dangerfield. But as general manager of the Montecito Water District, Mosby has ample provocation to deliver Dangerfield’s fabled “I don’t get no respect” shtick. Except nobody’s laughing.
At a town hall forum this Thursday evening about another water rate increase, about the only thing not thrown at Mosby was a rotten tomato. “It was terrible. It was not pleasurable. It was a tough night,” Mosby said. “But that’s how it goes.” About 80 people showed up, and not one had anything positive to say about the rate increase that Mosby insists is necessary.
If Montecito ratepayers find themselves confused by mixed messages, they are to be excused. One year ago, Mosby sounded the alarm the district could go bone dry within the year unless customers cut back drastically. They responded by cutting back consumption by a staggering 50 percent. All that conservation meant much less water got sold. And that created a $5 million budget shortfall for the water district. Not only does that need to be addressed, Mosby argued, the district also has to pay for all the water it bought from Kern County. The funny thing, Mosby said, is that the Montecito district now has tons of water. “We’ve got enough to get us through the next two years,” he said.
Part of Mosby’s difficulty, said J’Amy Brown, who serves on the Montecito Planning Commission, is lack of consistency. “It’s not that we can’t afford to pay for a secure water supply or that we won’t, but we don’t want to get yanked around like a bunch of rag dolls, either,” she said. “We want to see a long-term, strategic plan. And in the meantime, stop giving us a box of Band-Aids if what we really need is surgery.”
To that end, the Montecito Association has issued an email fatwah stating more information is needed before any rate increase could be supported. Mosby has until March 24 — when the next rate increase hearing is scheduled — to compile detailed water and financial projections in a manner that’s clear and accessible. “They want to really get into the weeds,” he explained. ”And we didn’t provide that level of detail.”
On Tuesday, Mosby will face yet another uphill battle, this time with the county supervisors, whom he’d asked to pass an emergency moratorium on new well drilling. In 2013, there were 278 applications for new well permits submitted to the county’s Environmental Health Services department. Two years before, there were 101. Given how small Montecito’s groundwater basin is, Mosby argues there needs to be a temporary shutdown on any new wells. It’s impossible to manage Montecito’s limited water resources, he argued, so long as new well permits are granted just for the asking.
Three dozen wells failed early last year, he pointed out. And when wells fail, the property owners turn to the water district for hook-ups. Three private companies provide well water to about 60 private residences located near Montecito’s waterfront. Should those wells be hit too hard, Mosby noted, they run the risk of drawing in salt water from the ocean, salt water intrusion being the hydrologic equivalent of sudden death.
County decision makers are less than enthralled. They worry about potential lawsuits from property owners claiming their land has been “taken” without compensation should well applications be suspended. Even within the boards and commissions that pass for self-governance in Montecito, there are decidedly mixed feelings about the proposed moratorium on new well applications.
Other areas throughout the county have indicated they want no part of such a ban. Joshua Haggmark, water czar for the City of Santa Barbara, acknowledged the new wells could pose management challenges. But the solution, Haggmark said, was to give property owners a very clear either-or choice when it comes water supplies. “They can drill a well or they can hook up with us,” Haggmark said. “But they can’t do both.”
The supervisors are not expected to take any action, but the discussion could be lively.
In the meantime, this weekend’s unseasonably hot weather — about 20 degrees hotter than average — is doing little to lift the spirits of water managers. This past January turned out to have been the hottest January in 120 years. And the current drought is already breaking local records for intensity. In the four years since the current drought began, Santa Barbara has received 48 inches of rainfall. During the first four years of “The Great Drought” of the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were 69 inches. And in the drought between 1947 and 1951 — perhaps the most definitive for drought response planning for Lake Cachuma’s 225,000 customers — there was 58 inches of rainfall.
Even more historic, Lake Cachuma is promising to deliver absolutely no water to the six water agencies that now depend upon it beginning this October. That’s never happened in the 55 years the dam has been operational. Earlier this year, Lake Cachuma’s six member agencies agreed to ratchet down consumption to only 45 percent of normal. But if present trends continue, there’s not enough in the reservoir to make good on even that.
The picture, of course, is far more complicated. Although there’s 9,000 acre-feet in Lake Cachuma available to the water agencies, there’s 55,000 acre-feet in all. A big chunk — 12,000 acre-feet — is known as the Dead Pool, where the mucky lake bottom is so silty as to be all but undrinkable. Another 12,000 acre-feet has to be released down the Santa Ynez River sometime this summer to satisfy the contractual rights of property owners whose groundwater basins need to be recharged on an annual basis. And another 3,500 acre-feet has been set aside for the federally endangered steelhead trout.
Last week, managers of the six water agencies talked via telephone with representatives from the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that built and owns Lake Cachuma, seeking the Bureau’s active support in reducing the quantity of water currently being released to ensure minimal survival for the steelhead. The water managers also contend that they’ve released more water for the fish than current biological mandates require once the amount of “project water” in the dam drops below 30,000 acre-feet.
The definition of “project water” is key; it refers to water available to member agencies for use and consumption. Water agency managers claim the 30,000 mark was passed many months ago, but that the amount of water the fish are required to get has not been adjusted accordingly. The water managers contend they’ve “overpaid” the steelhead to the tune of 2,000 to 3,000 acre-feet this year. This water, they argue, came out of the “project water” account, and it should be paid back out of the 3,551 acre-feet set aside for the steelhead passage account.
And at the very least, they insisted that the amount of water set aside for the steelhead drop from about 300 acre-feet a month to 30 acre-feet. This, they claim, is called for in the “Biological Opinion” which governs water release from Lake Cachuma for steelhead trout. “We’ve been releasing enough water in one month for the steelhead to provide for 900 families for one year,” exclaimed Santa Barbara’s Joshua Haggmark. “Maybe that makes sense when there’s water in the river, but during a drought like ours, not at all.”
Complicating matters enormously is that the decision does not rest with the Bureau of Reclamation, itself a vast federal bureaucracy with no shortage of crisis points to tend to, but with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). While the official Biological Opinion suggests that water released for steelhead be dropped to only 30 acre-feet a month in times of shortage, it does not mandate it explicitly. Instead, it mandates that the Bureau of Reclamation initiate “consultation” with NMFS.
What NMFS might conclude based on that consultation has yet to be seen. Creating anxiety among the heads of local water agencies is a profound sense of estrangement from the process. When asked what level of communication exists between NMFS and local agencies, Carpinteria’s Charles Hamilton responded, “Nothing. Zilch. Zero.” He added, “They talk to the Bureau; they don’t talk to us. We can’t even participate in the consultation. They’re like another world for us.”
Although the Bureau of Reclamation just requested that “consultation” be initiated with NMFS over the steelhead matter, local water officials have expressed great frustration at the effort required to get the attention of Bureau officials. It’s been many months, they said, since the Bureau was first petitioned to get involved.
Fueling such agitation is the unprecedented fact that there will be no water from the dam next year. That sounds more cataclysmic than it is because local water agencies managed to pump 22,000 acre-feet of water purchased from other parts of the state — via the State Water Project — and store it, briefly, in Lake Cachuma. Without this infusion, Lake Cachuma would be the proverbial bathtub ring.
If and when Lake Cachuma drops down to the Dead Pool, the fear is that there won’t be enough water left to allow the water pumped from points elsewhere to migrate far enough into the lakebed to get to the emergency pumping barge. Assuming levels drop sufficiently low, the water would have to be pumped by the barge, up and into the Tecolote Tunnel, and off to other water agencies for treatment and distribution.
Should that occur, it would constitute the ultimate nightmare scenario. However unlikely it may be, it’s increasingly on the minds of some district managers. But it shouldn’t be, according to Randall Ward, director of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board (COMB). “It’s a nonissue. We will never draw down the lake so low we can’t convey State Water. We just won’t,” he said.