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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 7:42 pm | Fair 56º


Cachuma Operations Board Fights for Water Reliability

President Das Williams takes a Santa Ynez water agency to task for slowing proceedings

What began as an expensive but run-of-the-mill list of maintenance projects for the South Coast’s water supply infrastructure has erupted into a full-blown battle as water policymakers struggle to look out for the interests of their respective customers while seeking — often unsuccessfully — to find common ground among one another.

For the past eight months, problems have arisen among the various water agencies, leading some South Coast water managers to worry that the region’s water supply may be in jeopardy from the inaction caused by constant conflict.

At a meeting Monday of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board — an organization made up of the city of Santa Barbara Public Works Department, the Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria Valley water districts, and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1 (known simply as ID1) — board President Das Williams called for a “divorce” from ID1, citing irreconcilable differences and a need to confine Cachuma’s South Coast-specific water issues to South Coast agencies.

“You have held the South Coast’s water supply hostage over an arcane legal dispute no one really cares about,” he shot at ID1’s COMB representative.

All five organizations must approve any expenditure of more than $1 million before it goes forward, but the dispute between ID1 and COMB is a bit more complicated than that.

ID1, which objects to COMB putting on its books certain fish conservation projects that ID1 says it shares in a partnership with the Cachuma Conservation and Release Board — a related agency, with a separate budget, of which ID1 is not a member — also has concerns about the constant back and forth of the past eight months as COMB and its South Coast member agencies have been unable to come to an agreement over which repair projects to do first and how to fund them.

When most people flip the faucet to fill up a tea kettle or take a shower, not much thought goes into how that water filled the pipes. The fact that most South Coast residents’ water comes from miles away, in the Santa Ynez Valley, is a vague notion — if that — for most water customers. But for the better part of the past year, a nearly perpetual struggle has existed for policymakers over the South Coast’s water supply and its vast delivery system as they wrangled over how best to maintain and upgrade aging water infrastructure. Even now, an end to the multiple disputes appears distant.

Now more than 50 years old, Lake Cachuma — which accounts for 80 percent of the South Coast’s water supply — and the subterranean tunnel and pipeline that bring its water to the coastal side of the mountains are in need of major upgrades and repairs to ensure future reliability.

But for water managers who would like to get that work under way quickly, collaboration among COMB’s member agencies is not as simple as it was in the 1950s, when construction was completed on Bradbury Dam and Lake Cachuma was filled. The “all for one” ethic that old-timers on the various boards sometimes reminisce about during meeting recesses seems to have fled.

The trouble started last summer, when COMB engineering consultant AECOM came up with a lengthy list of repairs needed along the South Coast Conduit — the backbone of the South Coast’s water delivery system. The firm identified several problem areas caused both by normal wear and tear and the unintended effects of repairs and upgrades made to the system over the years.

With COMB realizing that it couldn’t realistically expect to address all of the items in one go, AECOM and the agency’s staff created a priority list of nine projects that would cost $16 million, paid for by a bond issue.

At the start, things seemed to be going smoothly, with all of the member agencies going along. Water managers agreed that a $9 million project called the second barrel — a redundant section of pipe running the 8,200 feet from the outlet of the Tecolote Tunnel at the foot of the Santa Ynez Mountains to Goleta’s Corona del Mar Treatment plant — was essential to continuing to provide a reliable water supply to South Coast customers, particularly during the dry summer months.

They also agreed that a temporary repair made on the South Coast Conduit’s Mission Creek crossing when a huge boulder crushed into it in the mid-1980s was high on the list of priorities. Although that project included federally mandated creek restoration to benefit endangered steelhead trout, the repair also was seen as a “ticking time bomb” by AECOM and several of the water managers.

Then the mortar in the seemingly solid organization began to crack. Plagued with budget problems stemming from its purchase of too much state water in the early 1990s — along with customers seething over the latest increases in already high rates — the Carpinteria Valley Water District called for a re-evaluation of the cost-sharing structure in place since COMB was formed in the 1950s. The district’s board maintained that since COMB’s pipes were being used to deliver state water — which wasn’t introduced into the equation in Santa Barbara County until 1991 — changes should be made in the percentages of financial responsibility.

COMB responded to Carpinteria’s cost-sharing objection by calling for an independent $80,000 analysis of each district’s use of the system, but Carpinteria dug in and continued to oppose the $16 million bond issue, even as bidding began on the second barrel project in September. Although COMB General Manager Kate Rees, Santa Barbara water resources manager Rebecca Bjork and several other managers and board members, including Carpinteria’s own director, Bob Lieberknecht — Carp’s COMB representative and longtime general manager of the district until 1991 — said that Carpinteria’s recalcitrance would lead to losing $3.2 million of state Proposition 50 grant money, the district continued to say no.

Eventually, Carpinteria’s board of directors voted to withdraw from the second barrel portion of the project list, saying it was of more benefit to Goleta and Santa Barbara. It indicated that it wanted to evaluate other projects on the list on a case-by-case basis. Rees said this further dismantled COMB’s cohesiveness, but Carpinteria General Manager Charles Hamilton highlighted a need to keep his district’s rates from rising again, so cost — in all cases — was a concern.

The other three districts agreed to shoulder Carpinteria’s 12 percent cost of the second barrel project, but there was a suggestion that Carpinteria agree not to accept water deliveries from the South Coast Conduit (its only source) if, after the second barrel was built, the 50-year-old “first” barrel was taken out of service for much-needed maintenance. Carpinteria’s board seemed reluctant to agree to such a concession.

Seeing that things weren’t going well, Montecito’s board opted to withdraw from the bond agreement and finance the second barrel with a portion of its reserve funds. An exasperated Rees implored them to stay on course with the plan that already had been drawn up, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, ID1, whose board said it had to pay an attorney to draw up a new indemnity agreement each time the deal was changed, appeared to be growing weary of the other districts’ waffling. Its COMB representative, Lee Bettencourt, further stalled second-barrel progress with no votes and abstentions at board meetings.

“When our legal counsel has to meet with COMB’s legal counsel, it costs us money. Our ratepayers don’t want to be on the hook for a project that only benefits the South Coast,” ID1 General Manager Chris Dahlstrom told Noozhawk after Monday’s meeting, adding that if COMB keeps all fish projects — many of which are within ID1’s jurisdiction — under CCRB’s budget, ID1 will go along with the second barrel and other COMB improvement projects that it’s required to sign off on.

Williams was not sympathetic to ID1’s legal woes.

“If they have that problem, and we have our problem, then I suggest that they just willingly leave [COMB],” he said. “Obviously we cannot force them to leave, but it seems we have some irreconcilable differences.”

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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