No Water Cops Yet

Council Not Ready to Embrace Lawn Watering Ban

Joshua Haggmark
Paul Wellman

Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but for a slim majority of the Santa Barbara City Council, California’s drought has not gotten grim enough to warrant enacting a ban on lawn watering or creating the new cadre of water cops needed to enforce it.

Three councilmembers and Mayor Helene Schneider expressed serious reservations about Big Brother enforcement scenarios ​— ​no drones in backyards, the mayor said ​— ​or a belief that city residents would conserve even more if told rather than asked. Conversely, three councilmembers argued the shortage had grown so dire that a water ban, a building moratorium, and new drought impact fees were necessary. “Our margin of error is gone,” declared Councilmember Bendy White, the self-described Cassandra of the council on water issues. “We’re talking about wanting to do nice things. We don’t have any more slack in the system.”

The “nice things” to which White alluded were stepped-up voluntary conservation measures accompanied by a robust “branding” effort. White, a water commissioner during the last drought, insisted that tougher enforcement was needed even while acknowledging what a “PR disaster” it proved to be 20 years ago. In the past month, City Hall suddenly and unhappily discovered it had access to 800 fewer acre-feet of water from Lake Cachuma ​— ​now 93 percent empty ​— ​than anticipated. It also discovered that it would have to release substantially more to restore remnant populations of federally endangered steelhead trout. City wells, White added, had been pushed hard enough to give rise to concerns about saltwater intrusion into the groundwater basin. During the last major drought, he said, it took city basins 20 years to recuperate.

City water czar Joshua Haggmark argued Santa Barbara residents needed to make do with 800 fewer acre-feet of water a year, or a jump in conservation from 35 percent a year to 40. A lawn-watering ban, he argued, could save 500-1,200 acre-feet. That, he said, would cost the city $3.2 million in revenues. That could be made up, he added, by the imposition of a new drought impact fee. Haggmark argued some kind of enforcement staff would be necessary. “You can’t leave it to neighbors tattling on neighbors,” he said. Haggmark argued the economic disruption inflicted by a moratorium on new development would not be justified by the negligible amount of water saved ​— ​roughly 27 acre-feet a year.

Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss opposed the lawn-watering ban because, he said, only 30 percent of city residents own lawns, meaning a small minority of the population would have to shoulder the additional conservation burden. Hotchkiss said he didn’t want people “to go around town talking about ‘those damn lawn people,’” adding, “The idea of driving around looking for violations is equally repugnant.”

Councilmember Gregg Hart declared city residents appeared to have already met the new conservation targets delineated by Haggmark, noting Santa Barbarans used 42 percent less this August than last year. But to hit the 40 percent mark year-round, Haggmark said, residents would need to cut back by 45 percent or more in the summer months when most water is used. Haggmark, traditionally lukewarm to water bans and enforcement schemes, expressed serious concern Santa Barbara might not have enough water to get through the hot months of next summer if it doesn’t rain.

The city’s new desalination plant is scheduled to come online late January ​— ​several months later than initially expected ​— ​and he cautioned that further delays remain within the realm of possibility. Although City Hall has secured nearly 8,000 acre-feet of water from outside the county, the constricted capacity of the pipes and pumps needed to deliver the water create serious challenges. As a result, he said, Santa Barbara could only bank on half that water arriving.

Former mayor Sheila Lodge urged the council to take more dramatic action and supported a building moratorium. The past 15 months, she said, were the hottest 15 consecutive months in recorded history. Art Ludwig, a conservation consultant, noted that since the drought started, city residents had poured 14,000 acre-feet of water on their lawns. If a lawn ban had been enacted, he said, 5,400 acre-feet could be parked in Lake Cachuma. Although the councilmembers were clearly split, they directed Haggmark to lay the groundwork for a ban that could be adopted early next year if it doesn’t rain this winter, likewise for a drought impact fee


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