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Tuesday, February 19 , 2019, 1:15 am | Fair 48º


Hope Ranch Utility an Oasis of Calm Amid Water Tensions Elsewhere

Facing an array of surmountable challenges, La Cumbre Mutual presses forward with capital improvements

Entering Hope Ranch, even before the stately palm-lined entrance boulevard is encountered, what first strikes the casual visitor is the steady stream of expensive cars going in and out of the inauspicious street tucked to one side of Highway 101’s La Cumbre Road overpass. The development, if you want to call it that, boasts some of Santa Barbara’s most opulent homes, but also possesses an air of rural tranquility that is difficult to find, even in a community as relatively relaxed as Santa Barbara.

Before being the home to mansions and equestrian compounds that it is today, Hope Ranch was used for cattle grazing and orchards. Its housing density is still relatively thin, but over the years more housing led to a need for more water. La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., created in 1925 to provide water to a largely agricultural customer base, gradually underwent a transition to more residential service as lots were sold off by Harold Chase & Associates from the 1930s on.

Eventually, the groundwater wells under Hope Ranch became inadequate, and the water company began buying water from the Goleta Water District in the 1960s, and from the State Water Project in 1997. Today, with more than 1,400 service connections, the small utility covers a 2,100-acre area that stretches from the neighborhoods between Modoc Road and Hope Ranch’s eastern boundary to the eastern Goleta Valley suburbs on its western edge.

State water is currently delivered through Lake Cachuma, and since La Cumbre is not a member agency of the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board — which delivers 80 percent of the South Coast’s water supply to the Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria Valley water districts, as well as the city of Santa Barbara — it has to pay Santa Barbara to treat and deliver its state water allotment.

Part of maintaining a reliable water supply for Hope Ranch and its adjacent annex areas has involved constant wheeling and dealing to purchase unused water rights from other agencies in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. But La Cumbre also shares part of a groundwater basin with the Goleta Water District, and is participating in its recently released groundwater management plan.

“One of the most challenging aspects of providing service is that state water allocations have been diminishing,” said Mike Alvarado, La Cumbre’s general manager for the past three years. “There’s been quite a bit of rainfall this year, but the northern Sierra Mountains have been so dry (over the past several years) — it just soaks up all the water.”

Although the number is ever-changing as precipitation events occur, the California Department of Water Resources recently set the allotment allowed to contract agencies at 20 percent of the total amount. Although its an increase from the 5 percent that was guaranteed earlier in the year, it is still far short of what it was designed to be.

La Cumbre Mutual Water Co. general manager Mike Alvarado shows off the unitilty's new groundwater pumps. The pumps' gold color denotes
La Cumbre Mutual Water Co. general manager Mike Alvarado shows off the unitilty’s new groundwater pumps. The pumps’ gold color denotes “Super E” efficiency. (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

Being a mutual water company — an entity that is owned by shares held by the landowners in the company’s service area — sets La Cumbre apart from other area water districts. The company’s five-member board of directors is elected from among the shareholder-landowners living within company boundaries.

While controversy in and between other districts has become a hallmark of South Coast water politics, Alvarado said his shareholders have been very supportive of the capital improvement program he has been running. Written when the company was formed in 1925, La Cumbre’s bylaws specify that any expenditure over $250,000 requires approval of two-thirds of its shareholder-landowners. So far, that hasn’t proven to be much of an issue, giving Alvarado the chance to make some badly needed upgrades, including a $1.5 million groundwater pump station replacement that increased reliability while reducing energy costs by 9 percent.

“We accomplished our goal by coming in under budget on the project and keeping everything in the existing building,” he explained.

The company was also able to purchase a $90,000, 280-kilowatt portable diesel generator, which Alvarado said will help immensely during emergencies. During the Gap Fire, the power went out for 12 hours, rendering the groundwater pump station useless at a time when not having access to water could have been a major issue.

By 2014, La Cumbre must replace a reservoir that has been in operation since 1962. At $2 million, the project will bring the facility up to current state seismic standards.

Not unlike other adjacent districts, La Cumbre recently instituted a tiered rate structure designed to encourage conservation. Even so, Alvarado reports that revenues have stayed steady.

“People are still using water,” he said.

Because of its small size, La Cumbre has flown largely below the radar during the past year’s disputes between the region’s other districts concerning upgrading and repairing COMB’s infrastructure. Carpinteria Valley Water District general manager Charles Hamilton, facing customers angry over rising water rates last year, suggested that since La Cumbre uses COMB’s pipes to get its state water from Cachuma, it should pay a share of the $16 million bond COMB called for to repair and upgrade its facilities. Nothing more came of the suggestion, and Alvarado declined to comment on it.

With a small staff and the outlook of state water continually changing in the face of dry seasons, environmental regulations and other issues that always seem to plague so large a system, La Cumbre has its share of challenges, but Alvarado said that more of the company’s shareholders have been getting more involved.

“We have an annual shareholder meeting, and more and more people have been coming every year,” he observed. “Water is an increasingly important issue.”

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

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