BLOOD IN THE WATER: When Kevin Walsh stopped by for a visit a few months ago, I was a little disappointed. Where was all the hair on fire? The stench of mephitic odors? Or smoke coming out his ears? Walsh had just recently joined the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB) — one of the most crucial government agencies you’ve never heard of — and wasted little time establishing himself as both skunk at the garden party and turd in the punch bowl. Walsh, I had heard, was so inflammatory, rude, and abusive when questioning staff and haranguing fellow boardmembers as to constitute a hostile work environment.
Since then, it’s only gotten worse. Last week, the Santa Barbara City Council called out Walsh by name, accusing him of “active sabotage” by effectively threatening to cut off water deliveries to thousands of South Coast customers. This would trigger a “catastrophic cascade,” the council was told, which could only be remedied with severe rationing for all customers.
But the guy sitting across my desk from me was smart, opinionated, congenial, prickly, ingratiating, aggrieved, theatrical, verbose, generous, and pretty damn funny. He also knew water. Walsh has 28 years under his belt as a professional water manager. His father had been executive director of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. Water, you could say, runs in his veins. Walsh is now chair of a water district — referred to in the bureaucratically cryptic shorthand of water wonks as “ID1” — located downstream from the dam at Lake Cachuma.
As is common with people living down river from a dam, Walsh is quick to suspect the four South Coast water agencies relying on Lake Cachuma of conspiring to steal his water. Walsh goes through his long litany of grievances against the four South Coast water agencies that, along with ID1, are represented on the COMB board the way old-school Catholics blaze through rosary beads. Not all his gripes are ancient. Nor are they entirely imagined.
If I wound up writing anything, Walsh suggested I use the line, “Barges?! We don’t need no stinking barges,” a wickedly inspired riff on the classic line from the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which three wannabe gold prospectors fall to feuding after succumbing to greed and wind up losing everything. The barge to which Walsh refers is really a combination of barge, pump, and a few thousand feet of water pipe that functions as an emergency “straw” stuck into the middle of the lake. This is necessary because the water level sunk so low that traditional methods no longer work.
This emergency straw was first activated last year. But if El Niño doesn’t deliver soon, that straw will be sucking muck off the bottom of the lake in only a few months. The only solution is to move the barge where the water is deeper. And now. To move the barge by this summer, COMB has to authorize it at its meeting next Monday. Here’s the rub. For that to happen, it appears a unanimous vote by all five voting members of the COMB board is needed. And Walsh has threatened to use his veto power unless he gets written guarantees recognizing the water rights of downstream users have legal precedence over those of South Coast users, which, in fact, they do. It’s conceivable by the time you read this, sanity will have struck and a deal worked out. If not, we’ll be up the creek without a paddle. Actually, it will be much, much worse.
It should be noted Walsh is not the only wild hair on the river. And some of his gripes are legit. Relations among the five water agencies relying on Lake Cachuma have devolved into a Kama Sutra of every-agency-for-itself dysfunctionality into which the “fun” was conspicuously not put. The Goleta Water District, for example, finds itself at legal war with its own farmers over new drought surcharge rates that have effectively doubled the water bills paid by many farmers. When a Goleta “rancher” — actually Law & Order media mogul Dick Wolf — expressed interest in selling some of his groundwater to the Montecito Water District, Goleta threatened both Wolf and Montecito with legal action.
Likewise, when the City of Santa Barbara sought federal permits to maximize the limited productivity of its Gibraltar Reservoir, Goleta filed papers with the feds, demanding the plan be subjected to greater environmental scrutiny. That’s not a breach of etiquette; it’s an act of aggression. It should be noted that ID1 did the same thing, but that’s to be expected. Goleta was not.
But the skid marks really hit the road back in 2013 when Lake Cachuma plunged down to the halfway mark. That’s when all five water agencies were supposed to cut back their usage of Cachuma water by 20 percent. This “agreement” was written into a 1996 environmental impact report relating to steelhead recovery efforts throughout the Santa Ynez River Watershed. But in 2013, Goleta water objected that an EIR is not a contract and refused to honor the 20 percent cutback agreement. The other agencies felt they had no option but to follow suit. The effect, as Donald Trump would say, was “yuuuuge.”
That 20 percent translates to about 5,000 acre-feet of additional water. If even half that much was available today, we wouldn’t be nearly so desperate to move the barge as we now are. So when Kevin Walsh says — in his acerbically amused way — that the South Coast water agencies helped bring the crisis on themselves, he’s got a point. And when Walsh expresses skepticism that the South Coast agencies can be trusted to honor existing policies, there is basis for his doubt.
Bottom line, the barge must be moved. The five water agencies need to suck it up, make nice, and make it happen. If not, all our hair will be on fire. But there won’t be any water to put it out.