Montecito Water District executive Tom Mosby has been forced to seek refuge from the ongoing drought in grim humor. “If it rains this winter, we won’t have any water sales,” he observed. “If it doesn’t rain, we won’t have any water to sell.” In the meantime, Montecito’s notoriously profligate water customers dramatically reduced their usage this July, compared to the previous year, by 48 percent. Although final numbers are not in, it appears they’ve done the same for August. The target had been to cut back by 30 percent. There has been some resistance, however, and Mosby said three customers have been hit with fines of $25,000 for using more than their rationed allotment. The district has imposed $1.9 million in penalties since adopting its rationing program. In addition, many have gotten so far behind on their payments that they risk imminent cutoff.
According to freelance reporter Melinda Burns, 50 customers face cutoff by the end of this week if payments aren’t made. That’s the most ever. Other customers with a history of water-consumption issues, like Oprah Winfrey, have reined back use to within their rationing allotments. But Winfrey, like many others with large acreage, has trucked in water to keep some plants alive. Mosby can only speculate where the trucked water comes from — private wells from Carpinteria or Goleta — commenting, “That’s something we absolutely don’t support.” The back roads of Carpinteria, in particular Cravens Lane, are packed with water trucks hauling H2O pumped from wells north of Foothill.
Montecito is unique in the affluence of its ratepayers and the almost total lack of a groundwater basin into which to drill. As a result, sentiment is growing that the district pursue the development of a desalination plant. To that end, the district approved spending no more than $50,000 on a private consultant to get a road map of what’s possible where desalination is concerned. New plants are notoriously expensive and even more difficult to get permitted. Theoretically, it makes more sense for Montecito to hitch its wagon to Santa Barbara, but that poses bureaucratically dangerous risks of its own. Santa Barbara’s application to restart its desal plant is predicated upon the assumption that it would be used only as an emergency water supply. Mosby said the consultant should report back to the board sometime in October. In the meantime, he’s hoping state regulatory agencies realize it would be better for the South Coast to have one desal plant — not two — and respond with the appropriate flexibility.