Tuesday, March 20 , 2018, 11:38 am | Mostly Cloudy 63º


Randy Alcorn: Santa Barbara’s Water-Development Argument Dilutes Drought Realities

Back in March 1991 Santa Barbara was rescued from a long, severe drought by the “March Miracle,” an extraordinary deluge of rain that quickly replenished depleted reservoirs.

In our current record drought, we have had the “Summer Surprise,” when a wily Santa Ynez Valley water czar quietly, but legally, siphoned off water for downstream users that South Coast water districts had counted on.

That sly surprise along with the delayed desalination plant prompted the City of Santa Barbara’s Water Resources manager, Joshua Haggmark, to urge the City Council to impose a ban on lawn watering.

He proposes that the city increase water rates — again — to cover the $3.2 million loss in revenue that would be incurred from the ban. Additionally, he advises that water cops be hired to enforce the ban, and that water users be charged a drought impact fee to pay for the enforcement.

So, a community that has already voluntarily reduced its water usage by about 40 percent, while sustaining significant rate increases, would be asked to use even less water and pay more for it while being surveilled by a water Gestapo.

The danger of this drought is undeniable. The city is now relying so heavily on groundwater that there is real concern that salt water intrusion could permanently ruin the groundwater basin. How did Santa Barbara get into this dire predicament?

Drought becomes a dangerous problem when there is not enough water to serve the existing population — simply, population exceeds carrying capacity. Had the city been able to cap its population growth, as wiser city councils tried to do 30 years ago, instead of accommodating more of it, droughts would not be as threatening as they are now.

Yet, Haggmark continues to advise against banning new development because, he argues, that the “economic disruption” would not be worth the “negligible” amount of water that would be saved.

The cumulative effect of new development exposes the fallacy that development’s water usage is “negligible,” however. It is not.

Haggmark estimates that new development draws 27 acre-feet of water annually. While 27 seems like a small number all by its lonesome, that amount of water will be drawn year after year.

If each year’s new development increases water draw by another 27 acre-feet annually, after eight years the cumulative additional water usage of all eight years’ development would be about 1,100 acre-feet, which is the average of the amount of water Haggmark estimates that a lawn watering ban would save now.

Would Santa Barbara residents prefer to keep their lawns and have less traffic to boot, or would they prefer to enrich development interests and have more population?

What is unfair about banning lawns but not new development is that current residents suffer a diminished lifestyle and degradation of Santa Barbara’s singular ambience so that certain parties can benefit from continued development.

How much additional water has been required to service all the new homes, condos, hotels and stores built since, say, the end of the last drought and the beginning of this drought? That span is about 15 years, and the cumulative draw would be 3,240 acre-feet.

Wouldn’t we all sleep better if we had another 3,240 acre-feet of water available now? 

Fretting about the “economic disruption” to a minority of special interests if development is stopped while ignoring the disruption that water for additional development causes the majority of city residents is short-sighted at best.

Growth is not necessary to sustain an economy. Over the years, I have had several significant remodeling projects done on my old Santa Barbara house — as have many of us residents. That is a sustainable, ongoing economic activity that keeps the local construction industry busy.

More critically, there isn’t the water to support more growth. That is the reality that Santa Barbara needs to accept.

Look at the puddle that was Lake Cachuma, look at the Phoenix-by-the-Sea landscaping replacing a once verdant cityscape. Notice the dead and dying trees, shrubs and lawns. Santa Barbara will never be the same, but it certainly won’t be any better by adding more people, more traffic and more buildings.

Regardless of whether you accept climate change, severe droughts will continue to be common in California. I have seen three of them in the past 44 years, and each one just gets longer, drier and, because there are ever more people and limited water, scarier.

In writing East of Eden, John Steinbeck described the historical reality of California’s 30-year weather cycles  — 10 to12 years of decent rain followed by 18 to 20 years of drought, and observed: “And it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”

We shouldn’t forget the reality of recurring long droughts and ephemeral wet years. Fresh water will always be a limited resource here, and the belief that technology will provide unrestricted water may be more hope than possibility.

It is costing more than $45 million to restart Santa Barbara’s existing desalination plant to provide only a third of the city’s current water needs. With water imports limited by conduit restraints and unreliable precipitation, and with groundwater getting dangerously overdrawn, the city would be “water wise” to prepare that desal plant to produce its maximum of 10,000 acre feet — and lawyer up against the environmentalists who will likely oppose it.

What would primary reliance on desal water cost Santa Barbara residents? If you think Santa Barbara is expensive now, wait until you get that water bill.

What is truly water wise is for this community to accept it limits and end further development here.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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