A wet winter may be on the way, but the Goleta Water District is not taking any chances.

The district this week purchased 2,500 acre-feet of California Aqueduct water from the Antelope Valley-East Kern Water Agency for $1.2 million, said Ryan Drake, Goleta water supply and conservation manager. The district will pay an additional $1.4 million, he said, to cover the cost of moving the water to Lake Cachuma and, eventually, sending it back to the Antelope Valley. The water must be returned within 10 years. The district will be reimbursed for any unused portion.

During negotiations with the Antelope Valley this month, Drake said, Goleta edged out the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which had to settle for a smaller supply.

“The bottom line was, we needed it more,” Drake said.

Without the extra water, he said, the district would have been forced immediately to declare a Stage IV drought emergency, triggering restrictions on outdoor landscaping for Goleta’s 87,000 water customers. Goletans are already among the thriftiest in the state, with an average per-capita water use of 52 gallons per day.

The purchase also averts a potential cutoff of Lake Cachuma water to 22 Gaviota avocado and lemon ranchers in May 2016, should the drought continue unabated through a fifth year, officials said. After four years, the lake has dropped to near-record lows.

Rick Merrifield, vice-president of the district board, said he viewed the water purchase as “an olive branch” for Goleta ranchers, who have filed a lawsuit against the district, demanding reimbursement for drought surcharges that went into effect on July 1.

“The most significant benefit of this purchase is for the ‘ag’ interests,” Merrifield said, adding, “If it rains like crazy, we might look like fools.”

The state water supply was purchased in part with surcharge funds. District officials said they expect it will postpone the potential cutoff of Cachuma water to the Gaviota ranchers by at least a year.

But Paul Van Leer, general manager of the Las Varas and Edwards ranches on the Gaviota Coast, called the purchase “too little, too late.”

“They’re supposed to think way ahead,” he said. “They should have either started reducing their use of Cachuma or looking for extra supplies a year or more ago. Now, they’re trying to scramble and recover.”

The ranchers will not drop their lawsuit in any case, Van Leer said.

“The surcharge is going to put us out of business,” he said. “We’re barely surviving as it is.”


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