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Water is one of the South Coast’s most important issues and the Goleta Water District has been the scene of some of the hottest debates. (Noozhawk file photo)

It has been said that water is the next battleground for a world experiencing both climate change and increasing population. Whether you know it or not, the skirmishes have already begun in a small boardroom on Hollister Avenue.

If you live between Hope Avenue in Santa Barbara and El Capitan Canyon on the Gaviota coast, chances are the five members of the Goleta Water District board of directors have a direct impact on your life. What comes out of faucets and hoses, sprinklers and showerheads, and how much you pay, is a result of decisions made by this panel.

It’s a challenge, because in a dry climate like Southern California’s, careful management of water resources is one of the most important ways the South Coast can effectively support the population it has, with its small farms like Fairview Gardens to large operations like UCSB.

The concept was no clearer to the residents of the Goleta Valley than it was during the late 1980s and early ‘90s when a severe drought curtailed water use on the South Coast. Lawns dried up. Pools went unused. Building projects were stifled. People left.

For better or for worse, the drought resulted in two major things. One was a hookup to the State Water Project, a move thought by some to be prudent planning and by others a result that opened the floodgates to new development.

“People voted for state water, I believe, in ‘89,” said Bill Wallace, a Goleta veterinarian and former 3rd District Santa Barbara County supervisor known for his slow-growth stance. “And that spring we had the miracle spring — we got so much water that the (Bradbury) dam spilled.”

According to Wallace, hooking up to the State Water Project resulted in the cancellation of efforts to get the city of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant going — a plan, he said, that would have been more cost-effective than state water, and reliable in the long run over the Sierra snowpack from which state water originates.

The other result of the drought was the SAFE Ordinance, a Goleta Water District policy that restricts new water allotments for development to years that aren’t drought years and only if the ground water supply is at 100 percent of the levels they were in 1972.

Should the Goleta Water District function solely as a utility, supplying water to all who ask, as long as there is adequate supply? Should it play a role in the growth of an area with finite resources and a quality of life guarded jealously by the people who live there? What should the public know about the way its water supply is controlled? These, and ideas like these, are debated every second Tuesday of the month at the GWD board meetings and various committee meetings throughout the week.

“Debated” may be too tame a term for the kind of contention that can go on at these meetings. Former GWD director Jean Blois, now a Goleta City councilwoman, remembers a rowdy bunch back in her days on the board.

“It was just terrible,” she said. “The sheriff had to be called, and they threw nametags.”

These days tempers still flare but it’s not likely things will get thrown.

But it’s not just the people at the dais. Two newcomers — Bert Bertrando and Jack Ruskey — have been stirring the waters for the past two years, to the dismay of other board members. The pair ran for vacant spots on the GWD board in 2006 because of what they perceived as a certain irresponsibility and even secrecy of the board in managing matters that range from groundwater level reports to proposed rate hikes. Bertrando won but not Ruskey, who nevertheless gets his point across from the podium every chance he gets.

But, back to the question of the function of the Goleta Water District. For one candidate for the three empty seats on the board this year, the answer is obvious.

“We’re a utility,” said incumbent Harry DeWitt, who is running for re-election. For him the race for the water board is a question of utility vs. growth control.

“If you want to stop a development, you go to the Planning Commission, the City Council or the Board of Supervisors,” he said. “You don’t do it at the water district.”

DeWitt, along with former water board member Larry Mills, also running for a GWD seat, are firm believers in the district’s sole function as a utility.

In a recent presentation to the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce before his retirement last week, GWD general manager Kevin Walsh acknowledged that the district could be used as a growth-control tool, as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, but not without exposure to significant legal risk.

Also jumping into the fray are Lauren Hanson, a businesswoman, and Jim Marino and Bill Rosen, both attorneys. The three are GWD board meeting regulars who say the district’s culture must change.

“The Goleta Water District needs to step into the 21st century and get itself prepared for a future that may be very different from its models of the past,” Hanson said. Among her concerns are conservation and UCSB’s growth plans. The university has acknowledged that to support the population growth it predicts in its long-range development plan, it will have to tap sources other than the GWD for water.

Similarly concerned are Marino and Rosen, who also worry about the transparency they say is lacking and the demand that new development may have on the district’s water supply.

“Besides being a finite resource, the availability of water supplies will drive the extent of any development that is envisioned in and for the entire Goleta Valley,” Marino said. “We must live within our water means.”

In the spirit of public information and debate, Noozhawk asked each of the candidates in the Nov. 4 election five basic questions about what they feel the Goleta Water District is, and is not, as well as the direction the special district should take as it faces the water worries of today and tomorrow. As a reminder to readers, Noozhawk does not make political endorsements or take editorial positions. We do encourage your participation in debating the issues.

Click here for Harry DeWitt’s Q&A.

Click here for Lauren Hanson’s Q&A.

Click here for Jim Marino’s Q&A.

Click here for Larry Mills’ Q&A.

Click here for Bill Rosen’s Q&A.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at