Carpinteria is a decidedly laid-back beach community. With 4½ miles of coastline and a wide swath of lemon and avocado orchards and flower farms, the community — despite projections in the early 1990s that it would become much larger — has remained small. There are a few high-tech companies headquartered in the sleepy seaside hamlet, and the town lays claim to a polo field and several of the region’s more popular beaches: Santa Claus Lane; Rincon, a world-renowned surf spot; and Carpinteria State Beach, also known as “The World’s Safest Beach.”

Although its population hasn’t increased much during the past couple of decades, beneath Carpinteria’s casual demeanor lurks a problem that seems to worsen as time goes on: The city’s water bills are the highest in Santa Barbara County, and until recently, rates haven’t shown signs of easing off.

The city’s dependence on a combination of groundwater, regional water from Lake Cachuma, State Water Project resources, the pressure of ever-tightening federal clean drinking-water standards and system improvements, as well as its obligation to pay off a huge State Water allotment debt, has created a fiscal problem for which water administrators have explored every option in search of a solution.

Public outrage reached a fever pitch last May when the Carpinteria Valley Water District, citing the ever-mounting cost of providing service, raised the city’s already high water rates. Currently, a family of four in Carpinteria using a rough estimate of 17 HCF, or hundred cubic-feet, of water per month pays about $150, compared with about $73 for water customers in Santa Barbara. Even without turning on the tap — the district set 6 HCF as the minimum amount for any account — a Carpinteria water bill would be more than $80.

Anticipating more public participation than usual at May’s contentious meeting, the district held it in the Carpinteria City Hall chambers, a much larger venue than the cramped boardroom in which it usually holds meetings. Scores of angry customers lined up for a turn at the podium.

Later that evening, when representatives from the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, the city of Santa Barbara and Carpinteria’s own board explained in a couple of detailed presentations why water costs so much, only a handful of the 100 or so people remained.

Saddled with Sizable Debt

Unlike neighboring Montecito, Carpinteria’s biggest problem hasn’t been not having enough water, but having too much.

The year 1991 saw a perfect storm of the denouement of a severe multiyear drought and community growth projections that it’s now clear will not be reached — particularly anytime soon. Santa Barbara County voters approved a connection that year to the State Water Project, and a then-growth-oriented Carpinteria gave the green light to contract for 2,000 acre-feet of state water per year.

As general manager, Charles Hamilton has lobbied the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board and other districts to change Carpinteria's cost-sharing percentage for regional water supply improvement projects.

As general manager, Charles Hamilton has lobbied the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board and other districts to change Carpinteria’s cost-sharing percentage for regional water supply improvement projects. (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

Never having found a need for more than 1,000 acre-feet of state water every year, the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s ratepayers have been saddled with sizable debt and a comparatively anemic population base over which to spread the financial burden. The result has been some of the highest service charges on the Central Coast.

The addition of storage tanks, reservoir covers and other improvements designed to make Carpinteria’s water supply cleaner and more reliable have gradually added to the district’s costs. The discovery that disinfectant byproducts — trihalomethanes and acetic acids, formed when chlorine and organic material encounter sunlight — are carcinogenic led to stricter federal standards. Once-open reservoirs — such as Ortega and Carpinteria reservoirs, both of which Carpinteria uses — had to be covered with pricey aluminum roofs. With one groundwater well functioning and another on the way, the district also needed a storage tank facility in which to keep the new supply, and it built one in 2005 at Rancho Monte Allegre in the Carpinteria foothills.

Several projects and tens of millions of dollars later, customers grew increasingly unhappy about the rate hikes and asked why the projects were being built. Charles Hamilton, the district’s general manager, and the board of directors patiently — and repeatedly — explained the reasons, but the ire of ratepayers evolved into a grand jury investigation.

When the 3 million-gallon Rancho Monte Allegre storage tank was built, accusations were bandied about that Chip Wullbrandt, the district’s general counsel, and the ranch were involved in a sweetheart land deal. The grand jury failed to turn up with anything suspicious, and its report not only exonerated Wullbrandt, but it suggested that the whole thing stemmed from inflamed — and perhaps overcharged — passions run amok.

Bogged-Down Bureaucracy

When the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board presented its wish list of repairs and upgrades last year to member agencies — the city of Santa Barbara; the Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria Valley water districts; and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1, or I-D1 — Carpinteria was the first agency to drag its heels, objecting to the decades-old cost-sharing formula COMB suggested everyone continue to follow.

“I haven’t had a confidence-building experience with COMB this year,” said Hamilton, who, pressed to save his district money, initially had objected to the cost-sharing formula because entities other than COMB’s member agencies — such as La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., Raytheon and UCSB — were using COMB’s pipes to receive state water.

“People are using (COMB infrastructure) for state water now. Why should we be tied to this antiquated cost-sharing formula?”

Carpinteria’s move to re-examine COMB’s cost-sharing scheme caused controversy, and the resulting back and forth delayed for several months the first item on the list of projects — a $9 million redundant stretch of pipeline called “the second barrel.” It was only recently approved by all of the member agencies at COMB’s last meeting, on March 22.

Aside from maintaining that the second-barrel project — which would be built along the first 8,200 feet of the South Coast Conduit, the South Coast’s main water artery — is more Goleta and Santa Barbara’s concern, Hamilton and his board also have suggested that COMB and its water rights-oriented cousin organization, the Cachuma Conservation and Release Board, be restructured.

“There’s a need for COMB, but it isn’t set up to manage a construction project,” said Hamilton, pointing out that COMB, lacking its own engineer, has had to retain the AECOM engineering firm as a consultant on the project.

“There are bureaucratic inefficiencies, and it’s time for a change.”

COMB general manager Kate Rees has been adamant that the proposed list of projects, which are aimed at restoring aging facilities and bringing drinking-water standards up to speed, are quite necessary. Many COMB board members were incredulous when Carpinteria elected not to participate in the second-barrel project, particularly board president Das Williams, a Santa Barbara city councilman who attempted to get Carpinteria to agree not to accept deliveries from Cachuma in the event that the first barrel is taken out of service for repairs.

Carpinteria board member Bob Lieberknecht, who was Carpinteria’s general manager from 1964 to 1995 and is now its COMB representative, has consistently appealed to his fellow board members for more cohesion with other member units.

“We all hang together, or we hang separately, as the saying goes,” he said, asserting that COMB’s member agencies need to be on the same page if plans to approach the state water rights board with proposals to restructure COMB and CCRB go forward this year as planned.

Shared Resources

Situated at the end of the South Coast Conduit, Carpinteria shares a few facilities and costs with the city of Santa Barbara and the Montecito Water District. That means Carpinteria will have to help pay for the ozone treatment upgrade at Santa Barbara’s Cater Water Treatment Plant in addition to whatever it kicks in on COMB’s projects. The district is also a 50 percent partner in Montecito’s Ortega Reservoir, and, inevitably, the lawsuit that resulted when the cover installed by Penfield & Smith allegedly caused the storage pond to spring a leak.

Carpinteria is still in negotiations with the Montecito Water District over the possibility of annexing a collection of agricultural properties, known as the Edgewood Nine, that most likely would receive cheaper agricultural water rates from Carpinteria. While the transaction seemed ensured a year ago, water conservation in Montecito has changed the situation. As of now, Montecito’s staff is cautiously eyeing its revenue stream while Carpinteria anxiously awaits a potential increase in its customer base.

A Brighter Future?

Aside from Carpinteria’s headquarters groundwater well — a facility that can deliver up to 1,200 gallons per minute, and which also filters out impurities such as iron and manganese — the district has plans to build another well nearby. At $3 million, the El Carro well won’t be cheap, but because the state of California is contributing $2 million in Proposition 50 funds to the project, Carpinteria will have to add just $1 million. Hamilton said he’s hopeful construction on the new well will begin in June.

Despite a long and complex list of upcoming projects, Hamilton is confident the district’s customers will have their rates lowered this year. Outlining his board’s plan in a Coastal View News article this week, Hamilton said that by cutting the budget to the point where the district can defer some larger-scale projects, average customers will see a reduction in their bills.

“We’re aggressively cost-cutting at COMB and CCWA (the Central Coast Water Authority, which manages state water resources in Santa Barbara County),” he said. “Taking that approach, it does add up.”

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at