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County Grand Jury Delves Into Complaints Against Santa Ynez Water District

At least on the surface, allegations by valley residents appear to corroborate those of South Coast water agencies

In the days and weeks after a Santa Barbara County Grand Jury report — released May 6 — investigating the practices of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1, several agencies around the county have been compiling information and data to respond to 14 complaints filed by six individuals. Finding that merging the district with other potentially overlapping districts may be more efficient, the jury recommended studying the feasibility of such a decision.

Chris Dahlstrom, general manager of the Santa Ynez district — known as ID1 — countered that the report contained a number of omissions and inaccuracies, a sentiment echoed by his board, which discussed the report on Monday.

Among the complaints made to the Grand Jury were allegations that the district’s board of directors had committed violations of the Brown Act — legislation regulating transparency protocols for public agencies — and provided inadequate descriptions of agenda items.

One of the more weighty complaints centered on ID1’s sponsorship in 2008 of state legislation — Assembly Bill 2686 — to reorganize and expand ID1s powers, potentially conflicting with agencies—namely the Santa Ynez Community Services District and the Santa Ynez River Water District—some said had responsibilities overlapping those of ID1. (Community Services manages sewage services in a small area, and the water district is ID1’s parent agency.) ID1’s detractors maintained that the district failed on numerous occasions to inform the public of its intentions regarding the merger.

The report bubbled to the surface in a conflict that has been simmering in the Santa Ynez Valley since the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission recommended in 2006 that ID1 merge with the Community Services District, a move that ID1 — which argued that it didn’t own a special district legal classification — claimed was outside LAFCO’s jurisdiction.

“The Grand Jury got it right: 1D1 is in denial, and there is a problem here,” said Bob Field, a board member of the Santa Ynez Rancho Estates Mutual Water Company, one of several small water agencies sharing an aquifer with ID1. “ID1’s response is that they’re being victimized by everyone.”

Field and other water users outside ID1’s service area have expressed concern that AB 2686, authored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava, was an attempt to circumvent water rights from the smaller mutual water companies serving ranchette developments in the area. The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a ID1 customer, was placed into the legislation at the 11th hour, giving the tribe more say over water resources in a joint powers agreement.

Nava flatly denied allegations that he had colluded with the Chumash for their inclusion in the bill.

“In my opinion, it’s a bunch of uneducated idiots with nothing better to do than raise a fuss at district meetings,” Nava’s press secretary, John Mann, told the Santa Ynez Valley Journal in September 2008.

Ranchers and farmers worried about the potential effects of legal language in the bill opposed it, but Dahlstrom said his legal team had lifted the legal content of the bill directly from code used by other California water districts.

Although unanimously approved by both houses of the state legislature, AB 2686 didn’t make it past Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk. Santa Barbara County Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, in whose district Santa Ynez is located, said the bill would have expanded ID1’s powers — adding the ability to manage sewer service — but also would have increased Chumash water rights. As for the governor’s veto, Farr said she could only speculate that it was lumped in with other Democrat-sponsored bills rejected during the political turmoil preventing passage of a budget that year.

An October 2008 letter from Gov. Schwarzenegger to Mike Hadley, a board member of Santa Ynez’s Meadowlark Ranches Mutual Water Company, said that “after extensive consideration of both sides of this issue, I am pleased to inform you that I have vetoed this legislation.”

Although the Grand Jury can’t enforce its findings and recommendations, those identified in its report — in this case, ID1, LAFCO, Farr and the Santa Ynez Community Services District — have up to 90 days to respond. ID1’s board discussed the issue at its board meeting this week, and the others are in the process of studying the report.

“I’m very honored that the Grand Jury would task me with such a responsibility, but the boards of ID1 and the Community Services District are elected in their own right,” Farr said of the report’s request that her office convene a blue ribbon commission to further study the matter of a merger. “I’d love to talk with them, but the county can’t compel them to come to the table.”

LAFCO Executive Director Bob Braitman, whose board is scheduled to discuss the report on June 3, said merging the two districts could save money.

“There are lots of districts that serve multiple functions,” he said. “Water and sewer do well together; the city of Santa Barbara does both.”

Dahlstom said in a letter to the Grand Jury this week that the merger is unlikely to save money and that neither district wants to combine, among other criticisms of the report. He also suggested that review of such a merger would be best taken on by LAFCO instead of the Grand Jury.

Displeasure over ID1’s actions spans the Santa Ynez Mountains. Although not included in the Grand Jury’s report, South Coast water agencies wrangled with ID1 earlier this year over the construction of a controversial water reliability project known as the second barrel. An 8,000-foot-long section of redundant pipeline along the upper portion of the South Coast Conduit — the South Coast’s main water artery — construction of the second barrel was stalled by a number of roadblocks, the last of which was a no vote by ID1, a voting member of the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board.

ID1 is not a member of the Cachuma Conservation Release Board — an agency related to COMB tasked with completing fish habitat restoration projects along the Santa Ynez River — but it does have some say on CCRB projects within its jurisdiction. Confusion over a fish passage project or two led to ID1’s refusal to vote on the second-barrel issue, raising the ire of South Coast water managers.

“I’ve definitely been frustrated in recent years with the intransigence of ID1,” said Santa Barbara City Councilman Das Williams, the city’s COMB and CCRB representative. “They don’t want to spend a dime working with us on river restoration projects. I would like to partner with ID1 and the people of the Santa Ynez Valley to get things done and ensure that our water supply is guaranteed for years to come, but I think the only way that’s going to happen is with more public participation.”

ID1’s next public meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. June 15 at its headquarters in Santa Ynez.

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

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