Credit: Chad Ress

It’s one thing for Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive decree ordering tougher rules for issuing new water wells permits; it’s quite another for the county supervisors to craft a new emergency ordinance making it happen. But that happened at the Tuesday, May 24, board meeting.

Supervisors Bob Nelson and Steve Lavagnino worried that the proposed language they were considering at this board meeting was too restrictive, especially for farmers; Supervisor Das Williams worried that the language was too loose, allowing multinational corporations to continue to suck dry the already badly depleted groundwater basins of the Cuyama Valley. Despite such seemingly irreconcilable differences, the supervisors unanimously backed a new emergency ordinance that will require the county’s Department of Environmental Health, which is responsible for issuing well permits, to take additional steps to ensure that new wells are not allowed to negatively impact the production of nearby wells ​— ​defined as within 1,000 feet of each other ​— ​or cause subsidence of the ground.

Still very much a point of contention is whether those steps will be enough to protect the county’s five groundwater basins already facing over-drafting. Williams, whose district includes three of those five challenged groundwater basins ​— ​Cuyama’s, Carpinteria’s, and Montecito’s ​— ​was dubious the new safeguards offered meaningful protection. “Sure, we’ll deal with it years later, after they’ve sucked the valley dry,” he protested, alluding to the aggressive over-drafting that’s put Cuyama’s massive underground water basin in serious jeopardy. Water levels in some parts of the valley, Williams claimed, are dropping by 100 feet per year because of massive over-irrigation. To come into balance and meet state water requirements ​— ​passed in recent years ​— ​water use in the Cuyama Valley will have to drop by two-thirds over the next 20 years. 

The first three months of 2022 were the driest ever in California’s recorded history, according to Governor Newsom’s office. The state’s largest reservoirs are only half full, and this year’s snowpack was only 14 percent of average. This week Newsom put California water agencies on notice that unless he saw a major bump in conservation over the next two months, he would order a 30 percent reduction in water consumption. Last July, Newsom urged Californians to cut back by 15 percent. The results were mixed; water use either stayed the same or actually increased. 

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The past 10 years have been the driest ​— ​on average ​— ​in Santa Barbara’s recorded history. Deliveries of state water into the reservoir at Lake Cachuma have dropped to zero. Were it not for the City of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, the situation throughout the South Coast (Montecito buys water from the desal plant) would be even more urgent. 

Santa Barbara has five groundwater basins of moderate to high overdraft concern; in addition to the three already mentioned, there’s the Santa Ynez basin and the San Antonio Creek basin. Each of these, by law, has had to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), which in turn is charged with the creation of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GDP). 

Under the county’s new ordinance ​— ​and the governor’s executive order ​— ​these GSAs are charged with making the technical determination whether a new well would adversely affect the production of a nearby well. In the past, such well permits were strictly over-the-counter transactions.

Under the new ordinance, county officials must verify that a licensed hydrogeologist ​— ​or a licensed geologist with hydrogeological expertise ​— ​has signed off on the GSA’s attestation that the new well would not reduce the productivity of any nearby wells. The “fatal flaw” in this, according to Supervisor Williams, is that most GSAs are severely understaffed and lack the necessary expertise for such work. 

Other supervisors and county counsel countered that the governor’s executive order does not give county governments the legal authority to deny a proposed well that had been approved by a GSA. Nor does the county have the resources to conduct independent assessments on their own. The compromise agreed upon was that county officials could review the analysis provided by GSAs and then comment if it seemed sound or not. As such, it could function as a speedbump rather than a blockade. 

In the past five years, about 110 well permit applications have been permitted annually. Of those, 57 percent would be bound by the new rules. Since the governor’s executive order ​— ​issued March 28 ​— ​six new well applications have been submitted. Of those, only one fell within 1,000 feet of another well. 

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