Judge James Herman cut the proverbial baby in half, semi-settling the long festering water-rights dispute pitting TV mogul Dick Wolf and the Goleta Water District over Wolf’s rights to sell water underneath his Slippery Rock Ranch in the Goleta foothills. The key question left unanswered, however, is who got which half; that issue won’t be resolved until a second trial. In the meantime, both Wolf and the Goleta Water District are claiming victory.
At issue is whether Wolf is entitled to sell water from the vast underground aquifer lying underneath his 780-acre ranch. The Goleta district filed suit against Wolf two years ago to stop discussions between him and the Montecito Water District, then interested in securing rights to that water. At the time, consultants for Wolf asserted there was absolutely no connection between Slippery Rock’s underground storage basin and the downslope basins upon which the district’s 87,000 customers rely. Judge Herman found that hydrogeologists hired by the water district proved otherwise and was notably underwhelmed by efforts made by Wolf’s experts to convince him Slippery Rock could sell up to 2,000 acre-feet a year without adverse impact on the rest of Goleta. In the last drought, the judge noted, the ranch’s previous owner sold 1,000 acre-feet of water a year, causing “extensive die-offs” of alders lining the banks of San Pedro Creek.
Although Herman was dismissive of Slippery Rock’s arguments, he ruled there was such a surplus of water available from Slippery Rock to recharge Goleta’s aquifers that there was more than enough to allow Wolf to sell a sizable quantity to off-site users. How much remains to be determined, but according to Herman’s ruling, it could be as high as 1,600 acre-feet a year. The water district disputes that amount. Slippery Rock sources claim the district spent in excess of $1 million in legal fees prosecuting the case. The district has declined to disclose the cost, citing a recent court ruling that allows it to keep the figure private.