Water-well drilling operators like this one were backlogged in Montecito amid the drought. Each well can cost upward of $100,000.
Paul Wellman (file)

Only in Montecito would one hear the term “well shaming” ​— ​the act of publicly accusing a neighbor’s private water well of sucking up the area’s groundwater supply.

The Santa Barbara County Supervisors took up this matter on Tuesday, albeit not just for Montecito estates, known for their lush grasslands. In a split vote, they imposed discretionary review for all water-well permits in areas served by a municipal water district, with an exception for agriculture use. Currently, most water wells are administratively approved. Drilling a well in the costal zone, however, is subject to county planners’ discretion. (During the drought, they denied five permits.)

Now, all water-well applications will require such review. What’s more, all new wells must now have meters installed to record the amount of H2O pumped. These meters do not place any restrictions on water extracted.

As California’s drought worsened, the number of private water-well applications peaked, particularly in 2014. This increase was true throughout Santa Barbara County, but there was “a spike of activity in the Montecito area,” Environmental Health Services Director Larry Fay said Tuesday.

A total of 1,500 water wells currently exist in Montecito, according to County Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the area and has championed the issue. “That’s like having 1,500 more pipes in [Lake] Cachuma without any record of what is coming out of it,” he said.

Before the drought, about eight water wells were drilled annually in the 1st District (which includes Carpinteria, Summerland, and the City of Santa Barbara). That’s a 1,000 percent jump, Williams stressed. Though there has been a recent drop-off, he said, “It was bound to go down.”

Paul Wellman (file)

There was no scarcity of opposition. All but one speaker argued discretionary review and meter mandates would be unnecessarily cumbersome and essentially useless. For instance, who would even check the meters? Why punish all of Santa Barbara County for the irresponsibility of wealthy estate owners? they asked.

“Use a gold-plated fly swatter to deal with Montecito,” charged Andy Caldwell, executive director of COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business). “Don’t use an atom bomb to deal with the rest of ag.”

Many speakers identified themselves as farmers; some live in rural areas and cannot hook up to a water district. And, they added, they certainly cannot afford to truck water to their property (which has been known to happen in Montecito).

It is unclear if the ag-land exception will appease farmers. After the meeting, there was some confusion among them about the exact language, such as the definition of a “water district.” Fay said in an email after the meeting that Planning and Development would likely play a larger role but that “there are details to work out.”

Conservative supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino stuck up for the property owners’ rights. Lavagnino objected to a reference to morals. “I really don’t understand the comment about moral or immoral,” he said. “It comes down to private property.”

The only public speaker supportive of the county supervisors’ ultimate action was Kaitlin McNally, a representative of the Air Pollution Control District. Her main concern was about hydrogen sulfide. Last fall, a water-well operator drilled deeper than permitted, resulting in a potentially toxic outburst of hydrogen sulfide, which Fay described as “nasty stuff.” “It can kill you,” he said.

But County Supervisor Adam, who stressed he was the only one on the dais ever to have drilled a water well, said such incidents are rare. All county supervisors agreed to require water-well drillers to be equipped with hydrogen sulfide sniffers.


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