[Noozhawk's note: Click here for additional reporting on this story from Mission & State, a nonprofit news organization in Santa Barbara.]
In the face of a tenacious dry spell, the Montecito Water District has decided it can no longer wait for a rainy day.
This month, on the heels of two record dry years and a record rate increase, the district advised Montecito and Summerland residents to conserve more water or risk mandatory rationing this winter.
“The district’s water supplies have been stretched to the limit,” district officials said in a letter to customers. “Lacking enough rainfall, a water shortage condition, calling for cuts in water use by 20 percent, is imminent. If conditions do not then improve, we may have to declare a Water Shortage Emergency.”
The warning letter follows a 16-percent rate increase the water district hit its customers with on Sept. 1.
It’s the first of five hikes that by the 2017-2018 fiscal year will raise water rates 55 percent in Summerland, a small, tightly packed hillside community with great ocean views and lots of renters, and in Montecito, one of the wealthiest communities in the country.
Montecito Water District officials say the goal is to encourage water conservation and balance the books.
That local water consumption remained stubbornly high despite the increase in rates came as a surprise, to put it mildly, to district officials.
One reason why the community remains such a water guzzler — at 290 gallons a day its per-capita water use is the highest on the South Coast — is that 40 percent of Montecito Water District residential customers own one or more acres of lushly landscaped land.
Another reason may be that the median household income in Montecito is $112,656, which makes the district-wide average monthly bill of $213 easier to handle. In any case, people clearly aren’t getting the message, says Tom Mosby, the district's general manager.
Records show that a handful of unnamed district residents spent more than $7,000 each in September and again in October to water their lawns — a $1,000 increase in their water bills from August. Also, 12 estates abandoned dried-up private wells and began using district water, a trend that started earlier this year.
And compared to the first 10 months of 2012, both the Valley Club of Montecito and Birnam Wood Golf Club have nearly doubled their use of district water to keep their fairways green.
“Help me!” Mosby said, only half in jest. “This is way outside of what we were expecting. We thought everyone was getting on the water conservation wagon.”
The current water demand is unsustainable, Mosby says, because local supplies are shrinking.
The last two years tallied the lowest combined rainfall totals in Montecito since the water district began keeping records in 1924. The reservoirs that make roughly 80 percent of the Montecito Water District supply — Lake Cachuma and Jameson Lake on the Santa Ynez River — have dropped to 44 percent and 31 percent of capacity, respectively.
Unlike other South Coast communities, the Montecito Water District has only limited groundwater supplies for its 13,500 customers, some of whom live in the western Carpinteria Valley and eastern portions of the city of Santa Barbara.
“We cannot survive on our local sources,” Mosby said.
The dry conditions also limit deliveries from the California Aqueduct, the district’s most expensive water source, to a trickle. This year, the Montecito Water District will get just 35 percent of the supply it is paying for.
Allocations for 2014, to be announced in December, are expected to drop further if the weather stays dry.
The district will use up the State Water it had been banking in the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County by the end of this year, Mosby says, and will buy some from Carpinteria and Goleta.
Extra State Water also may be available next winter from Central Valley rice farmers who are paid to fallow their land, he adds, but there will likely be heavy competition for that water, and the cost will be higher than what the district normally pays.
State Water costs are already straining Montecito Water District coffers. According to Mosby, the 2013-2014 fiscal year marks the fourth consecutive year the district will be forced to dip into its reserves, this time for more than $1.5 million.
Much of that will go to replacing the community’s deteriorating water mains, some of which are 90 years old. The water main work can run as much as $1.8 million per mile, and there are still 23 miles to go. That project is expected to cost about $15.1 million.
But don’t get the wrong idea. Mosby says he’s grateful for every drop the water district gets from the California Aqueduct.
From 1973 to 1997, before State Water was available on the South Coast, the Montecito Water District was forced to declare a permanent water shortage emergency, meaning strict caps on water use were assigned to each home, high water rates were imposed for exceeding those limits, and a lot of customers were pretty upset.
“State water is such a huge burden on our budget,” Mosby said. “It’s incredibly expensive. Do we have enough left to pay for our capital projects? No. But at the same time, State Water has played a significant role as a supplemental water supply.
"If we didn’t have state water, I wouldn’t want to work here anymore. I couldn’t handle the stress.”
In 1991, at the end of a five-year drought, most communities in Santa Barbara County voted to build a 143-mile-long branch of the California Aqueduct to carry State Water to Lake Cachuma from Kern County. The price tag, including the cost of a water-treatment plant, was a hefty $595 million, not counting the still-accumulating interest on the bonds issued to pay for the project.
During the 1988-1989 fiscal year, before the vote on the aqueduct branch, the average water bill in Montecito was $35 monthly. That’s because back in 1989, the district’s operating expenses were only $1.5 million.
By contrast, reports show that in 2012-2013, the district spent just more than $11 million — 44 percent of which went to state water.
The Montecito Water District is not alone in its predicament. State water is driving up rates everywhere and now accounts for 31 percent of the Goleta Water District’s expenditures, 31 percent of the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s and 18 percent of the City of Santa Barbara’s water fund.
In 2011, with no money in reserve, the Goleta Water District announced a rate increase of 43 percent over five years.
“We tapped our reserves long ago,” said John McInnes, the Goleta Water District general manager. “It’s a very scary proposition. But if we hadn’t paid for State Water, we wouldn’t have enough water for our customers.”
Carolee Krieger, a State Water opponent who failed three times in the 1990s to win a seat on the Montecito Water District board, sees things differently.
“The major expense is not the water, it’s the fixed costs on the aqueduct,” she said. “The water is not there when we need it.”
To date, including the interest on the bonds, water agencies in Santa Barbara County have paid $601 million in fixed capital costs for the aqueduct branch, and still owe $636 million, according to the Central Coast Water Authority, the Buellton-based agency that treats and delivers State Water to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
Santa Barbara County, which signed the original aqueduct agreement with the state, is the ultimate guarantor that the State Water bonds will be paid.
Last week, Ray Stokes, executive director of the Central Coast Water Authority, told a skeptical county Board of Supervisors that $2.5 billion in major pump repairs, seismic repairs to dams and other aqueduct improvements are necessary and must be shared by all of the State Water contractors in California. The extra cost for county water agencies will be about $25 million, he said.
In addition, Stokes said, State Water contractors will be on the hook for a share of the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a $25-billion proposal to build two aqueduct tunnels under the San Francisco Bay delta.
The project is being billed as a way to improve the reliability of State Water supplies, restore the health of the fragile delta ecosystem and protect supplies in case of earthquakes.
If Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration decides to go forward, agencies in Santa Barbara County contracting for State Water from Santa Maria to Carpinteria would be liable for $100 million of the total cost, Stokes said.
Krieger, who is now president of the California Water Impact Network, a watchdog group that she founded, is opposing both the Bay Delta project and the proposed aqueduct contract extension. She estimates the total cost of the tunnels, including the interest on the bonds, at $69 billion, and sees no benefits for ratepayers.
“We should not get into more vague and amorphous debt for no new water,” Krieger said. “It’s bad enough as it is.”
For now, the Montecito Water District board is reserving comment on the aqueduct's total capital cost.
“We’re a little wary and not believing the numbers they’re publishing,” Mosby said.
The prospect of a prolonged drought, however, coupled with the rising cost of State Water, prompted the Montecito Water District board to send a letter earlier this month to the county Board of Supervisors, requesting a long-term analysis to identify new sources of water for the region.
Mosby is hoping that one new source will be seawater desalination. A desalination plant on East Yanonali Street in Santa Barbara has been mothballed for years, but Mosby believes it could someday serve the entire South Coast.
“We know, in the long run, we need to become more autonomous,” he said. “State water isn’t going to save us.”
— Melinda Burns is a reporter for Mission & State.