An emergency rescue effort of rainbow trout in Jameson Lake — owned and operated for the exclusive use of the Montecito Water District — came up with zero fish last week despite the best efforts of 12 trained personnel with the U.S. Forest Service and California Fish and Wildlife.
Rainbow trout are genetically identical to — though different from — the federally endangered steelhead trout, and the proto-steelhead of Jameson are considered among the least adulterated representatives of the species in the county. (Steelhead are distinguished by the trek they make out to sea and back to the coastal creeks and rivers where they were spawned; rainbow, by contrast, remain landlocked their entire lives.)
With Jameson’s water level plunging, dissolved oxygen levels have dipped below what’s minimally acceptable for the trout. The rescue squads were equipped with rod-and-reel fishing tackle and barb-free hooks. They used no bait. There were a few nibbles, but no bites. Perhaps it was the lack of bait, the abundance of minnows in the water for the trout to chomp on, or the low oxygen counts, said district manager Nick Turner, but the fish were notably less active than expected. They were, however, present and detected. Turner said the two agencies would figure out what to try next — netting, low-level electroshock stunning, or more fishing but with bait.
Turner also took exception to statements made by UCSB hydrologist Dr. Hugo Loaiciga, who said the Montecito Water District’s groundwater basins were in overdraft and experiencing seawater intrusion. Loaiciga’s report had been commissioned by the California Coastal Commission and was relied upon two weeks ago when the commission unanimously rejected a private well application sought by Montecito resident and UC Regent Hadi Makarechian.
Turner said he had not read the report but noted that recent well tests showed the level of chloride — an indicator for seawater presence — is well below regulatory thresholds. As far as overdraft is concerned, Turner said studies from the 1990s established the safe yield — the average amount that could be withdrawn annually from the district’s three basins — to be 1,640 acre-feet a year. The district, he stated, only pumps 500 acre-feet of water a year.
According to Loaiciga, the safe yield for Montecito’s Basin Three, the district’s most productive, is 409 acre-feet a year, not the 700 cited by Turner for an earlier report. In addition, Loaiciga estimated that private well owners are sucking up 700-1,000 acre-feet annually. Turner said it’s all but impossible to estimate the total amount pumped by Montecito’s private wells because they’re not metered, and most are used only occasionally for landscaping purposes.
In the meantime, the drought has exacted a political toll on the Montecito Water District. Earlier this year, rumors abounded of a possible campaign to recall incumbent boardmembers. That never materialized, but for the first time in many years, there will be a genuinely contested election for the two seats up for grabs this November.
Incumbent Charles Newman, a successful attorney from the Midwest before settling in Montecito, is seeking reelection. Boardmember Jan Abel surprised many last week by announcing she would not seek reelection. Equally surprising was the announcement by Turner’s predecessor, former district manager Tom Mosby, that he was running. So, too, is Tobe Plough, a private investor and longtime civic activist with politically conservative, government watchdog inclinations, and Floyd Wicks, a professional water consultant.
In response to some of the hot water in which the district has found itself over the drought, rate hikes, and rationing, a subcommittee of the water board met Monday and voted to spend up to $30,000 a year to hire a part-time public information coordinator. Longtime community activist and Montecito resident J’Amy Brown showed up to oppose the idea. “There are all of three media in town, and the staff can’t handle the workload you three present?” Brown exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” For that money, she added, the board could deduct the $82 monthly drought surcharge she and all water district customers are now paying for as many as 353 months. “Give me a break,” she said.