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Cachuma Board Hits New Hiccup in Process for Infrastructure Upgrade

Agency now must pay $95,000 in resource studies to get federal permits for second-barrel project

Having hit the latest in a series of stumbling blocks tossed before it during the past year and a half, the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board voted Friday to move forward with historical and cultural resource studies connected with a $10.5 million capital improvement project aimed at restoring the South Coast’s water infrastructure to its intended capacity.

Dubbed the second-barrel project by water administrators, construction plans call for a redundant pipeline to be placed alongside the first 8,200 feet of the South Coast Conduit — the region’s main water artery.

AECOM, COMB’s engineering consultant, called for the project as part of a series of upgrades designed to address flow-capacity reductions in the aging water distribution system that managers say have come dangerously close to causing problems during the high-demand summer months.

COMB already has received the latest round of bids on the project, but a contract has yet to be awarded. Ventura-based Blois Construction, the lowest bidder so far on the project, appears to be favored. A contract was considered last fall, but contention among COMB member agencies caused it to fizzle.

The historical and cultural resource studies are a recent development in what so far has been a lengthy and problem-riddled process, and stemmed from both Bureau of Reclamation and Chumash representatives.

Within the past few months, COMB general manager Kate Rees has said she received word from the bureau that the concrete structure at the south portal of the Tecolote Tunnel — the 6½-mile long passage carrying water from Lake Cachuma through the mountains to Tecolote Canyon in Goleta — is part of the Tecolote Tunnel, and therefore a historic structure. But for COMB, demolition of the structure is a key part of the second-barrel project, so a study by the state Office of Historic Preservation is now required to get a host of federal permits necessary to begin construction.

Rees said that while having a tribal monitor on hand throughout the construction process to look for potential Native American archaeological sites is a given in a project of this type, Chumash representatives contacted her at the end of May to indicate the possibility of cultural sites existing along the pipeline’s planned easement, requiring another study. She said the cost of the two archaeological studies, plus an environmental consulting fee, will add up to about $95,000.

“These costs, while a hassle, are not entirely unforeseen,” said Santa Barbara City Councilman Das Williams, Santa Barbara’s COMB representative and the board president, noting that when the second-barrel project was first conceived as part of a list of seven repair and upgrade projects, the board had conceded that second barrel had the potential to eat up most of the budget that had been set aside for all of the projects.

“I want to empower staff to move as fast as possible so that we can keep (Blois Construction’s) bid,” he said.

Since spring of 2009, when COMB’s staff assembled the list of projects and presented it to its member agencies — the Santa Barbara, Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria Valley water districts, and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District 1, also known as ID1 — a few problems have arisen in the form of disputes among the individual districts.

Knocking down the first domino last summer, the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s board of directors — facing customers irate over a recent fee hike in a district with rates already considered the highest in the region — balked at the cost of the second-barrel project, claiming it had no direct benefit for Carpinteria’s water users. Rees and other area managers disagreed on that point, but eventually agreed to shoulder Carpinteria’s share of the financial burden among the remaining three.

Next, Montecito’s board opted out of the $16 million bond proposed by COMB to pay for the list of projects, setting off a chain-reaction of agreement rewrites across the five member units to ensure everyone knew who was responsible for which parts of each project. After adjustments, including Carpinteria’s removal from the cost-sharing equation, the bond — which will be issued only for the second barrel — now will be about $10 million.

After the project had received bids and a contract awarded, ID1 refused to vote yes to allow the project go forward (COMB bylaws require that projects costing more than $1 million be ratified by a unanimous vote), asserting that the legal back and forth caused by frequent changes was costing the small North County district too much money. Some South Coast managers — most notably, Williams — accused ID1 of holding the South Coast hostage on the second-barrel project because of unresolved disputes over Lower Santa Ynez River fish passage projects in ID1’s jurisdiction.

Finally, ID1 got on board with the second-barrel project, too, and it was again sent out for bid. Rees said she sees the most recent hiccup as nothing new in the grand scheme of things, but pleaded with her board to continue supporting the project to lock in $3 million in Proposition 50 funding from the state — a fiscal source that has a deadline of March 1, 2012.

“The concern is that if (the second-barrel project) gets pushed back too far, it won’t be completed by the Prop. 50 deadline,” said Rees, adding that she has already begun the process for an extension from the State Water Resources Control Board, just in case something else comes up before all of the project’s bricks are laid.

With the cost of the studies now required by the federal government at $95,000, only a simple majority of member unit votes was required to initiate them. ID1’s representative did not cast a vote, and Douglas Morgan, Montecito’s representative, voted no in accordance with the consensus of the rest of his board.

“We find the current conditions of the second-barrel (project) extremely unacceptable. We wonder if we should throw good money after bad,” he said, referring to the money COMB has spent preparing the project to get off the ground. Rees said about $1.1 million has been spent on the second barrel portion of COMB’s capital improvement wish list alone, and suggested that forward is the only direction to go when such an investment has been made.

With the second-barrel project slowly lurching forward, Rees said COMB hasn’t even begun to address the two other projects that, along with second barrel, were major parts of restoring the South Coast Conduit to its original flow capacity. Namely, a $500,000 vent rehabilitation for the pipeline and a $3.2 million repair to a section of conduit damaged when a boulder dislodged by a flood in the late 1980s crushed a section of the spanning Mission Creek.

“Mission Creek is the only place where imminent failure could be an issue, but it needs a unanimous vote because it will cost more than $1 million,” said Rees, calling the more than 20-year-old concrete patch poured on top of the boulder and cracked pipe section a ticking time bomb.

Rees said she plans to start lobbying for federal legislation to secure congressional appropriations for all of the rehabilitation work that COMB hasn’t even begun to address. Remarking upon the alacrity with which the Cachuma Project was finished — from 1953 to 1956, the Bureau of Reclamation and its contractors not only completed Bradbury Dam, the Tecolote Tunnel and the four South Coast balancing reservoirs, but also had all of the necessary private property sales and easements necessary to finish the project — Rees surmised that it most likely will take years to get much of the restoration of those same works off the ground.

“These days, getting a permit or finishing an EIR can take that long,” she said.

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

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