War Looms over Rights to Lake Cachuma Water

Moving Barge and Pump Turns into Water District Dispute

<strong>I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE:</strong> Santa Ynez water boardmember Kevin Walsh is worried South Coast water agencies will steal his district’s supplies.
Paul Wellman

While atheists are famous for avoiding foxholes, no believers are to be found in any of the South Coast’s five water agencies when it comes to the Baby Jesus of this year’s El Niño. With weather forecasters predicting little to no rain for the next 10 days, water managers are at each other’s throats over new emergency maneuvers to secure supplies for the coming months.

The Santa Ynez water districts are accusing South Coast agencies of trying to “steal” water in Lake Cachuma; South Coast managers insist they’re seeking only what they accumulated over time by conservation and direct purchase. After a meeting went precipitously south this Monday, the Santa Barbara City Council weighed into the fracas, throwing about some heavily charged language. Councilmember Gregg Hart said he was “incredulous” over Santa Ynez’s pursuit of its “selfish interests” and accused the downstream agency of “active sabotage.”

Under contention is an effort to move the lake’s barge and pump ​— ​a $6 million emergency “straw” through which all water has been sucked since Cachuma’s post-drought levels plunged ​— ​into deeper waters. For the pump to be moved, a unanimous vote of the five member agencies making up the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board ​— ​better known as COMB ​— ​is required. Given the bad blood, it remains questionable whether such unanimity can be achieved by March 7. That’s the drop-dead date to get the barge moved one mile west ​— ​and 6,000 feet of new pipe laid ​— ​by July 1, when it will be urgently needed.

If the rains don’t come and the barge doesn’t move, Kelley Dyer, water supply manager for the City of Santa Barbara, said her department wouldn’t be able to make deliveries to customers living in Santa Barbara’s upland neighborhoods. These customers are now served by a gravity-fed network of pipes that flow out of Lake Cachuma to the city’s Cater Water Treatment Plant located in San Roque. Well water would not be available as a substitute. An untold number of north-slope residents served by the Goleta, Montecito, and Carpinteria water districts would be similarly left high and dry. “It would be catastrophic,” Dyer said. “It’s what keeps me up at night.”

If the barge isn’t moved, South Coast interests contend they will also be cut off from access to state water, currently the only source rejuvenating the lake. Without massive purchases from rice farmers north of the Bay Area delta, the current drought would have inflicted far more violence. This coming year, South Coast agencies are hoping to buy 10,000 acre-feet.

The bone of contention isn’t money; it’s ancient history come alive. Santa Ynez agencies won’t pay a penny of the $790,000 it will cost to move the barge and lay the pipe, but under COMB’s bylaws, they have the power to veto the project. At a COMB subcommittee last week, Santa Ynez boardmember Kevin Walsh and district manager Bruce Wales outlined a litany of slights, gripes, and affronts causing them to doubt whether South Coast agencies could be trusted not to take water out of the lake that wasn’t theirs.

Walsh has also argued that South Coast agencies have no contractual right to any water pumped out of the lake beneath 660 feet. Currently, Cachuma’s water level is at 665 feet. For the pump and barge to work, experts say it needs to be moved once the dam level hits 658 feet. Walsh took South Coast agencies ​— ​with 80 percent of the population and 80 percent of the demand ​— ​to task for acting as if the dam was theirs. The river, he pointedly reminded them, belonged to downstream interests.

Wales complained South Coast water customers hadn’t been made to sacrifice as much as their Santa Ynez counterparts. On the South Coast, he stated, lawns have gone brown; in Santa Ynez businesses and farms have been forced out of business. For any deal to be approved, Walsh said, his district needed absolutely airtight guarantees South Coast agencies wouldn’t take more than their legal entitlements.

Goleta representative Ryan Drake bristled at having to sign a document stating he wouldn’t break the law. “The law is the law,” he said. Santa Barbara water czar Josh Haggmark expressed pessimism any deal could satisfy Santa Ynez’s “absolute need” for such assurances. “I used to think we could get there,” he said. “Now I’m more confused.”

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