Montecito is Santa Barbara’s own little slice of semi-rural heaven. From its oak-shrouded mountains to the mansion-studded strip of coastline, it offers its residents a home turf that’s the envy of others the world over. But like most places in California’s southern half, this seemingly utopian locale is a functioning balancing act, as water managers strive to maintain a reliable water supply to keep taps running without interruption for residents, businesses and a handful of farmers year after year.

Sandwiched between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Montecito is, physically, a difficult place to supply water on a large scale. There are a few groundwater wells, but they don’t generate nearly enough water to satisfy Montecito’s population.

In 1930, Juncal Dam was completed on the Santa Ynez River on the other side of the mountains, giving Montecito its own water supply via the 2.2-mile Doulton Tunnel. But over the years, water demand increased and other supplies were needed.

Nearly 30 years later, Montecito became one of the recipients of the Cachuma Project, and later gained a share of State Water Project supplies when Santa Barbara County’s extension of the project was completed in 1997.

Trouble in the Coastal Village

Even with a robust water supply portfolio, by 2007 the amount of water being consumed — particularly for landscaping around large homes — became a serious issue in Montecito. As California plunged into a multiyear statewide drought, State Water Project allocations — which make up 40 percent of the Montecito Water District’s supply — were cut drastically.

“We were in trouble,” said Tom Mosby, who has been the district’s general manager since 2007. “The State Water allocations really affected our ability to provide water to our customers.”

After Montecito overran its 5,700 acre-foot total supply by 600 acre-feet in 2007, the district’s Board of Directors acted, passing an ordinance in early 2008 that effectively limited each customer’s annual use to one acre-foot of water — including larger properties with a lot of landscaping. Use had driven the average per customer consumption up to nearly 1.5 acre-feet per year.

Later that same year, the district imposed what is called a tiered rate structure, charging progressively more per unit of water as consumption increases.

The Bella Vista Water Treatment Plant, which collects water from Jameson Lake through the Doulton Tunnel, has been in operation since 1993.

The Bella Vista Water Treatment Plant, which collects water from Jameson Lake through the Doulton Tunnel, has been in operation since 1993. (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

There was significant public outcry at board meetings as the new rate structure was discussed, but the board approved it. And along with purchasing some of San Luis Obispo County’s unused State Water, the district was able to make what was shaping up to be a bad situation much better.

“We were very pleased with the response of the community,” said Mosby, noting that in the past year, demand for water has dropped by 700 acre-feet.

Montecito’s Hand in COMB

The Montecito Water District also has played a small but important role in the past year’s negotiations over how best to repair and update the South Coast’s regional water supply. Originally an 11.5 percent participant in the Cachuma Project, the district agreed to shoulder a third of the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s share of the controversial second-barrel project when Carpinteria balked at the project’s $9 million price tag last year.

When the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, and its engineering consultant, AECOM, presented a list of repair and improvement projects for the aging regional water distribution system, Montecito’s directors examined the particulars of different projects very thoroughly but decided to go along with it.

They did add their own twist: Montecito would not participate in the $16 million bond COMB proposed to finance the project, but would pay cash from its own reserves.

While innocuous, Montecito’s decision to adopt its own version of the gold standard seems to have been the final straw in what became a series of back-and-forth legal disagreements between COMB and its member units — particularly Carpinteria and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1, also known as ID-1 — over COMB’s list that only recently has been resolved.

The Leaking Time Bomb

The proposed second-barrel project — a redundant 8,200-foot section of pipeline COMB officials said was needed to restore the designed capacity of the South Coast Conduit — is only part of a bigger picture when it comes to keeping taps running during the hot, dry summer months.

When the South Coast Conduit — the South Coast’s main water artery — is taxed to its limits during these times, water managers have a number of options available, including augmenting water from Lake Cachuma with water stored in a number of reservoirs on the coastal side of the mountains.

With the introduction of new federal regulations targeting disinfectant byproducts( when organic material in reservoirs mixes with chlorine and sunlight, it produces trihalomethanes and acetic acids, which contain carcinogens), reservoirs needed covers installed to eliminate the sunlight component of a potential health hazard.

So the Montecito Water District dutifully installed an $18.5 million aluminum cover on Ortega Reservoir, with financial help from the Carpinteria Valley Water District, which also uses the reservoir as part of its distribution system. Naturally, some Montecito residents objected to what they saw as a four-acre aluminum monstrosity — but in it went, bringing the facility up to par with federal standards.

The trouble began when, after the project was completed in 2007, a 50-gallon-per-day leak was detected at the base of the Ortega Ridge Dam, the earthfill structure administrated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that holds the concrete-lined reservoir in place.

After some head-scratching, Montecito’s staff decided to ask Penfield & Smith, the engineering firm that installed the cover, to fix the leak. Penfield & Smith declined to make a repair, which could cost $7.5 million, and legal action ensued.

Currently in litigation, neither the district nor Penfield & Smith would comment on what comes next, but the result has been a reduction in the amount of water that water managers are willing to store in Ortega Reservoir. Although it is a key piece of Montecito and Carpinteria’s water distribution system — receiving treated water from the city of Santa Barbara’s Cater Water Treatment Plant — there is concern that filling the reservoir could allow too much water to seep into the dam, thereby weakening it.

Bureau statistics indicate that the dam is sound, but if it were to fail, there would be a lot of unhappy people in Summerland, which lies directly downhill from the reservoir.

“It’s expensive litigation, and the ratepayers are paying for it,” Mosby said. “Carpinteria, too. They’re 50 percent participants (in paying for the reservoir’s maintenance costs).”

The Edgewood Nine

The land area encompassed by the Montecito Water District isn’t particularly known for its agricultural properties, but there are a few. A handful of the larger ones — known as the Edgewood Nine — border the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s jurisdictional boundary. At a time when water consumption was a concern in Montecito and low costumer base a problem for Carpinteria, discussion arose about the possibility of transferring them to Carpinteria’s system. Its agricultural water rates are less expensive, and since Carpinteria has more available groundwater, the annexation of nine agricultural parcels looked like a sealed deal.

Then the tiered rate structure went into effect, and Montecito residents began saving water. Now that its overall revenue has decreased by 12 percent, Montecito seems hesitant about giving up the Edgewood Nine.

“The need we had a year and a half ago (to push for the annexation) isn’t necessarily there today,” Mosby said. “The door isn’t closed on that, though.”

The Watery Road Ahead

As a community, Montecito is pretty much built out, so its demand for water is unlikely to expand. But maintaining the system that’s in place is a constant challenge for water managers. A $15 million capital improvement program began in 1997, and the district has to pay for its share of the Cachuma Project, the State Water Project and their continuing maintenance.

Mosby says that by carefully managing the various components of its water supply portfolio and keeping ratepayers educated about water conservation, the district will be able to continue supplying water.

“We all recognize that without water, this place just wouldn’t be what it is,” he said. “It’s all about finding balance.”

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at