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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 7:09 am | Overcast 53º


Montecito Mostly Alone in Facing a Watershed Dilemma

Water rates are likely to rise across the South Coast but only Montecito is at the brink of restriction ordinances.


Tom Mosby, the Montecito Water District’s general manager, says as much as 80 percent of Montecito’s water is used to sprinkle trees, grass and gardens.

[Editor’s note: A unit of water is 748 gallons. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.]

A spell of rainfall in January might have averted a drought on the South Coast, but you wouldn’t know it in Montecito, where the water district is facing the possibility of declaring a water-shortage emergency.

This is largely because Montecito’s water use — despite a relatively static population — has never been so high.

During the 2006-07 “water” year, which ended Sept. 30, Montecito’s total water use was a record-high 6,900 acre feet. That’s nearly half the amount used by Santa Barbara, even though Montecito’s population of around 10,000 is only a ninth the size. Put another way, the average single-family home in Montecito used three and a half times more water than the average single-family household in Santa Barbara, said officials in both water districts.

Between 75 percent and 80 percent of Montecito’s water is used to sprinkle trees, grass and gardens, said Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District.

“All the water is going outdoors,” he said. “That’s what’s hurting us, people truly love their gardens.”

Naturally, rates in Montecito are expected to increase, and soon. But Montecito isn’t the only community where water bills are set to sponge a little more money from residents. Santa Barbarans are looking at a proposed summer increase as well, and the Carpinteria Valley Water District is proposing a 5 percent hike that will affect mostly large commercial users.

To be fair, the Montecito crunch isn’t caused solely by this year’s record demand. It is also the product of steep cutbacks in the state water program on which the unincorporated enclave depends for a large pool of its supply. This year, the state, partly due to a court order meant to protect the delta smelt, had to drastically reduce the amount of water it provided for Montecito and other districts. Montecito received just 35 percent of what it requested, down from 65 percent the year before. Next year, Mosby said, it could dip as low as 10 percent.

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.

Making matters worse, Montecito does not have underground water wells, which serve as a kind of reserve in times like these. Other South Coast cities enjoy this luxury.

Still, Montecito’s increasing thirst for water doesn’t appear to be letting up. Use for the 2007-08 water year is on pace to exceed last year’s record. According to a letter the district mailed to customers Thursday, last year’s total demand exceeded supply by around 200 million gallons. And following February’s torrential rains, water consumption in March was the highest on record for the month.

“Some of the properties have very expansive lawns and shrubs that use a lot of water,” said Mosby, adding that he recommends plantings that require less water.

Mosby said he is feverishly searching for some water to purchase, and might be closing in on some options, but he declined to discuss any details, other than that he should know within a couple of weeks. Failing that, he said, the district’s board of directors may have to call a water shortage emergency, in which case rates would be raised immediately. Even if that doesn’t happen, however, Montecitans will most likely see their rates rise sometime in August.

The district is planning to hold two town-hall meetings in June and July so residents can discuss the proposed hikes.

As it is, Montecito residents pay a flat rate for their water. That is, no matter how much they use, they are charged the same thing: $3.75 per monthly unit. (In the water world, a unit equals 748 gallons.)

The new proposed pay rate would charge heavier users more.

For each of the first 20 units, users would pay $3.90. The price would increase for the 21st through 60th unit to $4.15. Anything beyond would cost $4.40 per unit.

In Santa Barbara, the city Public Works Department is proposing a 3.5 percent increase in water rates. Currently, Santa Barbarans pay $2.65 for each of the first four units, $4.44 for the next 16 units, and $4.68 for anything beyond that.

Unlike Montecito, where water use has risen steadily in the past decade, the arc of use in Santa Barbara tapered off significantly after the drought of the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

After the drought, the city’s annual water use plummeted to 14,000 acre-feet from about 18,000. But in the last water year, the amount rose significantly for the first time since the drought, to 15,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is equivalent to the volume of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot.

Meanwhile, the Carpinteria district is grappling with the opposite version of Montecito’s dilemma: Too much water.

Because of the drought of the early 1990s, Carpinteria residents voted to import 2,000 acre-feet of state aqueduct water annually, even though Lake Cachuma and water wells already supplied plenty of water.

Charles Hamilton, general manager of the Carpinteria district, said he may have found a way to store some of the surplus water at a waterbank in Kern County. The storage would be free, but the district would lose half of the water it sends to it. Still, the stored water could come in handy during a drought, he said.

“We’re paying for the water that we don’t use and don’t need, so it’s become important for us to do something with it of value,” he explained.

The thought of selling some of the surplus water to thirsty Montecito wasn’t lost on Hamilton, but he said so far Montecito doesn’t like the price.

“They are looking for cheaper water than what we have available,” he said.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Carpinteria district will hold a City Hall hearing on new water rates.

Carpinteria’s proposed increases are complicated, but in essence are designed to have minimal impact on lesser users, such as for those who live in mobile homes.

Currently, users pay $2.78 for the first seven units, $3.48 for the next eight and $3.89 for anything beyond. The new rates will go up in such a way as to raise an extra 5 percent, but should only significantly affect large commercial customers, Hamilton said.

In Goleta, the water supply is also lowered somewhat by the state situation, but underground reserves should help stave off any kind of shortage, said Mike Kanno, operations manager for that city’s water district.

Unlike Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Montecito, the Goleta Water District is not proposing any rate increases in the near future. Goleta residents currently pay $3.55 for the first four units, and $3.71 for all succeeding units. Residents also pay a fixed monthly amount for their meters ranging from $9.21 to $27.63.

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