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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 8:04 am | Fair 39º


Montecito Water District to Ask County for Groundwater Restrictions, OKs Desalination Plant Research

Feeling the pressure of its limited water supplies, the Montecito Water District board wants Santa Barbara County to stop issuing well permits for the area, saying it compromises the community’s groundwater basin supplies.

There are 550 parcels with private wells within the district, which includes Summerland and Montecito, and the district has no way to measure how much water is being extracted from those wells.

General manager Tom Mosby suggested a letter to county agencies that approve the well permits, since Montecito is unincorporated, asking them to suspend new well permits during the drought, require water measuring devices on wells that come forward to renew permits and give the district a way to monitor the basin water levels.

“We have very little groundwater available and everybody’s putting straws in,” Mosby said.

The Board of Directors unanimously supported the recommendation on Tuesday, saying it was necessary to get a handle on how much water the community actually uses.

It’s asking the county to do what it probably should have been doing all along, director Douglas Morgan said.

There are so many wells because when the board banned new meters added to the district between 1973 and 1997, it led to a wild west of water, where everyone with valuable land built anyway and drilled a private well.

Mosby believes a moratorium on new wells is in order and wants a way for the district to monitor how much water is being sucked out of the district-area basins. There’s no intention to control how much people draw from their wells, just collect data on the usage, he said.

Adding water meters for measuring purposes could be done on a permit-by-permit basis by appropriate county agencies, staff said.

They are specifically asking the county for ways to monitor the groundwater wells and amount of water being extracted from the basins, with water-measuring meter devices installed and easements offered by property owners so private wells can be part of the biannual basin water level testing.

Statewide groundwater regulation legislation could lead to similar monitoring actions, but Montecito’s situation is dire enough to act now, Mosby said.

From the historic highs of 1998, many of the district’s groundwater well levels and water production amounts have dropped significantly in recent years, below the levels of the last bad drought in the late 1980s into early 1990s.

Some are so dry that the district most likely will turn them off and others have an elevation that’s actually below sea level now, according to a staff report.

The district asked for similar terms in 1990 but once it rained, everyone forgot about it, Mosby said.

Ron Blitzer, a representative of the small Lingate Mutual Water Company, said that community is all installing meters and support this action by the district.

“This is critical — not to have water measures is very short-sighted,” he said.

The board also voted to spend $250,000 on the starting steps of pursuing an independent, emergency desalination plant for district use. The seawater-to-potable-water facility would provide more water during the current shortage, and the district staff want to eventually make it a permanent addition to the water supply.

Consultants already created a feasibility report on possible locations for the desalination plant and the seawater intake facility, identifying the district's own headquarters on San Ysidro Road as a potential site.  

On Tuesday, the board voted to have consultants look into the process of permitting an emergency facility, talking to property owners about easements for the potential seawater intake sites and researching whether sub-surface seawater intake is possible in those locations. 

The two intake locations being considered at this point are the former Miramar Hotel property and property in the Santa Barbara Cemetery. An intake at those sites would require an easement from property owners for underground utilities, district staff said. 

Director Morgan voted against the funding, saying the plan was “going overboard.” He objected to doing fieldwork research at the beaches at this point, saying consultants should examine the public data already available. 

People brought up the possibilities of placing the desalination plant on the Montecito Sanitary District site or trying to join the City of Santa Barbara’s plant, as they have in previous public meetings.

The board is still pursuing those options but needs to move as fast as it can to get emergency water, which includes looking at an emergency plant, director Dick Shaikewitz said.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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