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Goleta Water District Q&A: Lauren Hanson

[Editor’s note: One in a series of five candidate Q&As for the Goleta Water District board of directors. Click here for the main story. Click here for Harry DeWitt’s Q&A. Click here for Jim Marino’s Q&A. Click here for Larry Mills’ Q&A. Click here for Bill Rosen’s Q&A.]

NOOZHAWK: Why are you running for the Goleta Water District board?

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Lauren Hanson
LAUREN HANSON: The simple answer is that I believe I can make a contribution. I’ve attended district board meetings and committee meetings as a concerned citizen for the past couple of years and I’m alarmed at the actions of the current board majority. They are unresponsive to customers, secretive about their actions and surprisingly nonchalant, it seems to me, about the water issues facing us.

The Goleta Water District needs to step into the 21st century and get itself prepared for a future that may be very different from its models of the past. With a new board majority that’s possible, and I’m running to make that happen. My academic background and work experience make me very comfortable with the responsibilities involved and I hope interested Noozhawk readers will visit my Web site, www.LaurenHanson2008.com, to learn more about my campaign.

NOOZHAWK: What is the biggest issue facing the board and the district’s ratepayers, and what would you do about it?

LAUREN HANSON: There are many significant issues facing this water district and they all need to be addressed by the board. Several are policy issues, several are about the way the board operates.

On the policy front, the district needs to follow the protective water use ordinance called SAFE, which I’ll discuss in more detail below. SAFE was put in place by voters to safeguard our water supplies and it needs to be followed and respected by the board. There needs to be a well-thought-out plan for our water supply — its measurement, its storage and its use. The district needs to make realistic forecasts about the availability of water for our community, so that land-use planners don’t rely on the current board’s unrealistically rosy pictures of how much water we will have. The district needs to make a commitment to strong fiscal management from the board to ensure affordable rates. It needs to commit to keeping our local agricultural community vibrant and thriving. It needs to engage the community in a broad water conservation effort. These are big, ongoing matters, all of which can be addressed by just getting going on them. The current board has dawdled, a new board majority won’t.

More immediately, the board needs to hire a new general manager to replace Kevin Walsh, who retired Oct. 1. It also needs to clarify and, in my opinion, strengthen its position relative to UCSB. There’s a contract coming up for renewal with the university and the district needs to handle that negotiation with professionalism.

Finally, on the how-they-go-about-their-business level, the board needs to become much more responsive to the district’s customers. Simple things like holding meetings at convenient times, really listening to customers and being open about what the district is doing will show customers that there is a new approach at the district’s board. After all, the employees of the water district treat customers with courtesy and respect — it isn’t too much to ask that the board do so as well.

NOOZHAWK: Clean water is still a relatively cheap commodity, but it is becoming more precious with increased development and population. Do you see any future need to raise rates and why?

LAUREN HANSON: The district raised rates in July 2007 and caused all sorts of upheaval with customers who didn’t understand why their water bill was going up, when they were being careful and conserving. The current board angered a lot of people with that action. My aim would be to reward conservation by district customers, not to charge them more when they’re doing a good job!

Certainly, costs go up everywhere and we, as customers, end up paying for them. My goal for the district would be fiscal responsibility that keeps the district’s costs in tight control so that there aren’t surprise burdens to pass along to customers. It is important to acknowledge that we don’t know what the future holds in terms of water availability and the cost to the district of acquiring that water and getting it to us. The district is responsible for maintaining and improving an extensive water distribution system. It extends from “Noleta” where I live, to UCSB, Isla Vista, the city of Goleta, the foothills and west to El Capitan. I suppose I could make a promise of something, but I don’t think that’s right because I expect rates will change over time just as costs for all things change over time. As a customer myself, I can accept rates that are clear and understandable and that feel fair. I think it is crucially important for the district to communicate openly and respectfully with its customers about everything to do with our water, and that includes the rates we are charged for it.

NOOZHAWK: How do you reconcile the general need to use less water (conservation), with the district’s need to make profits? Can the district make money even as ratepayers use less water?

LAUREN HANSON: I support and will do everything I can to encourage the widespread adoption of conservation practices in our community. (It is inspiring that the district’s agricultural customers are some of the most conserving water users in the country.) In this time of statewide drought and global climate uncertainty I believe it is morally indefensible to waste water. At the same time, the district needs to function in a financially responsible way, meaning that revenues must cover expenses and funds generated above and beyond that (which you referred to as “profits” in your question) must be available as a reserve for capital expenditures and for emergencies.

It is not only possible for the district to operate successfully as customers use less water, it is imperative that it do so. First and foremost, it is the district’s responsibility to keep its costs in check and to operate in as lean and efficient a manner as possible, regardless of how much water customers use. The new board will closely scrutinize a line-item budget to make sure expenditures are not out of line. This is something the current board does not do.

In terms of costs, conservation has a couple of interesting properties. Conservation can reduce the amount of water the district needs to acquire for us, thereby reducing operating costs. Furthermore, conservation can reduce the need for large capital outlays — for storage capacity, for example. So conservation can offer operating savings and capital cost savings. These savings would probably not fully offset the lost revenues from lower water sales to customers, however. Communities that have successfully addressed this issue well ahead of us have found that conservation pricing is an idea that works for residential customers and helps water districts maintain their financial equilibrium. This is a concept of rewarding those who conserve with lower rates and charging incrementally higher rates to those who do not conserve. I think this is a subject that is worthy of discussion here. I would like to see the district and its customers have meaningful talks about what we, as a community, want to do. Certainly, shared efforts to conserve give all of us a voice in how we go about protecting our water supply for our community.

NOOZHAWK: There’s a lot of disagreement over the SAFE ordinance, the policy that ensures a buffer in times of drought, and recent reports regarding groundwater levels — whether we have enough to satisfy SAFE and continue to plan for new allotments. Where do you stand on the issue of SAFE and the 1972 groundwater levels required by the ordinance to be reached before new allotments can be made?

LAUREN HANSON: Noozhawk readers may remember that the SAFE Water Supplies Ordinance, put into effect by voters in 1991 with an amendment in 1994, was written in a time of turmoil and water shortage. The ordinance allowed the district to begin purchasing state water to augment our local water supply. The concern in the community was that this state water might lead to far more development than the community sought, so usage safeguards were written into the ordinance. As a result, SAFE contains strong, protective language about the creation and maintenance of a drought buffer and sets strict limitations on the amount of water that may be released for new or additional uses. In my opinion, the only reason the district has water available in our groundwater basin for community use in a drought emergency is because of the SAFE ordinance.

The current board majority has made repeated efforts to sidestep the requirements of SAFE. They have failed to mention it in their Urban Water Management Plan, have minimized its very clear restrictions when submitting Water Supply Assessments to the city of Goleta and for some reason have not managed to apply its provisions to the district’s largest customer. Nowhere have their efforts to work around SAFE been more apparent than in their tortured discussions of the 1972 water levels.

The SAFE ordinance requires that annual contributions to our drought buffer be made until the water in our basin has reached “100 percent of its 1972 levels.” The wording is simple and clear. After that, so long as the water is at that level or higher, the district doesn’t need to make annual contributions and it may, in fact, pump water from the basin for existing customers. So this 1972 water level has significant operational implications for the district. The matter seems straightforward — measure the wells and see how their water levels compare to 1972. The U.S. Geological Survey does just that, twice a year, and the current district board has a paid consultant who has analyzed the data and reported that the basin is “generally” at the 1972 levels. He has not been able to state to the district that the basin is at 100 percent of the 1972 levels, in part because a well in the largest section of the basin is much lower than its 1972 level.

To me, and to many concerned customers, the reluctance of this expert hydrologist to state that the basin is at 100 percent of the 1972 levels makes it very difficult to understand the board’s recent decision to declare that the levels have been met. I, personally, would need to have a finding from an acknowledged expert before I would feel comfortable making such a pronouncement.

NOOZHAWK: How would you clear up the confusion?

LAUREN HANSON: If there has been so much change in the basin and its well activity since 1972 that measuring the wells is no longer the best way to calculate our underground supplies, I would seek advice from water experts about other measurement techniques. One alternative is to calculate the volume of water in the basin, rather than the water levels. This could be done, in part, with a three-dimensional model of the basin, which the current board does not have. I would seek such information. Clearly, if that type of measurement could give us better information about our underground water supply, we should use it. But the district must always respect the spirit and intent of the SAFE ordinance. Its purpose was the prudent care of our underground water supply. Whatever methodology is used to measure that supply, the district must always meet the requirements that voters put into place to protect it.

Click here for more information on Lauren Hanson.

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