As of January 1, watering lawns within Santa Barbara city limits will be outlawed in response to Southern California’s worsening drought and the South Coast’s all-but-empty reservoirs. While the City Council was unanimous about the watering ban, there was much heated discussion about the possibility of water rationing and even a moratorium on new development.

Councilmember Randy Rowse, a moderate conservative, said residents have a hard time cutting back water consumption only to see new development go up. Councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Cathy Murillo, who rarely agree on much, pushed for a rationing plan in which water customers are given a finite amount of water they can use any way they like. Those who exceed that amount would be hit with a stiff fine. City water czar Joshua Haggmark explained that rationing made sense in theory but in practice could be hard to manage given there are 27,000 separate households. He said his staff will have rationing options to explore early next year.

Several members of the public called for a building moratorium, arguing they should not have to sacrifice when new growth and development were allowed. Haggmark noted that new development required only 27 acre-feet per year but acknowledged “the optics” weren’t good.

As increasingly occurs, council deliberations devolved into an angry and insistent argument between councilmembers Jason Dominguez and Murillo over a controversial city program designed to encourage developers to build high-density rental properties. Dominguez contends the program effectively subsidizes high-income renters at the expense of those making less than $123,000 a year. It’s an issue he frequently brings up, no matter what’s on the agenda. Efforts by Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White to corral him proved futile. Murillo, an ardent advocate for the housing program, accused Dominguez of hijacking a discussion about the drought. When he sought to rebut, Murillo escalated her criticism until Schneider intervened.

Currently, city residents are using 41 percent less water than they were before the drought. By banning lawn irrigation, Haggmark hopes city residents can meet that target year-round, not just in cooler, damper months. The reduction in water sales caused by the ban will cost City Hall $3.2 million a year, to be made up from reserves in the short term and by yet-to-be-proposed water-rate increases in the long term.


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