Friday, March 23 , 2018, 8:36 pm | Fair 57º


Randy Alcorn: As Water Pressure Increases, It’s Obvious That Bigger Is Not Better in Santa Barbara

The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury reports that Lake Cachuma reservoir, which provides 85 percent of the water for South Coast residents, is significantly over-allocated.

In spite of water customers’ voluntary use reductions of 34 percent, the reservoir — expected to endure a seven-year drought — has been drained nearly dry after four years of drought.

The grand jury has recommended that the Santa Barbara County Water Agency increase the frequency of safe-yield reviews to about every five years. Safe-yield calculations determine water allocations based on expected availability. Obviously, the key factors in this determination are realistic projections of both availability and demand — effectively, it is a budget.

Realistic budgeting and periodic budget reviews are common practice in well-managed operations — because the consequence of allowing expenditures to exceed revenues is bankruptcy. While deficit spending is risky in business, it can be catastrophic in water management.

It is a bit disconcerting then that the water resource manager of the City of Santa Barbara, a city that, along with Goleta, sucks up two-thirds of Cachuma’s water, would say that a five-year safe-yield review is too frequent.

Given the vagaries of climate change, five years seems a minimum review period to provide sufficient time to make necessary water budget adjustments.

A less frequent review period only delays discovery of, or ignores, actual conditions. It increases risk and limits corrective options. Who would benefit by that?

To answer that question, first consider the main budget elements of inflows and outflows of Cachuma water. Outflows include downstream water rights, species habitat regulations and, most important, customer demand. Inflows include imported water and rain runoff.

The main factor in the inflow side of the equation is weather. Not much can be done about the weather. Outflow is where the budget can be balanced, and since demand is by far the greatest element of outflow that is what must be considered first and foremost.

Why then would any conscientious, competent management increase outflows when there is steadily dwindling inflows to cover existing demand? But, that is exactly what the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara have been doing by permitting new development year after year — while expecting existing residents to use less water and pay more for it.

City officials might argue that California’s Housing Element Law in effect mandates local communities to absorb more population. But, for various reasons, that law continues to be ignored by many communities. One very important reason for all the noncompliance is water.

The Sacramento Bee reports that the state’s projected population increases will soon outstrip water conservation efforts. The state’s housing mandate law deserves local communities’ contempt, because unless the state can mandate the weather to provide more rain and snow, it is absurd for it to mandate communities accommodate more population.

Although Santa Barbara has a fallback with desalinized ocean water, that does not justify more development. Desal is an emergency resource that comes at considerable expense to Santa Barbara’s water customers and to ocean ecology.

Since desal has an annual capacity limit equal to Santa Barbara’s current drought-driven conservation usage of 10,000 acre-feet, adding more water users will only prolong and exacerbate the deprivation during droughts.

Yet, new development continues to be approved, which may explain the resistance to more frequent water budget reviews. Those who want to keep on building don’t want there to be any reason not to. They prefer to whistle past the graveyard and pretend everything will be fine rather than prudently check to see if it is.

Increasing the area’s population does not benefit the vast majority of local residents. As once-verdant parks and gardens become kitty-litter landscapes, as toilets go unflushed and showers get shorter, who benefits?

The forces of greed do.

In their pursuit of personal gain, they ignore or are unconcerned about exceeding the carrying capacity of Santa Barbara. What makes the place so singularly attractive is — for them — just another resource to exploit. They believe it is their free-market right to exploit until nothing is left.

The puddle that was Lake Cachuma is prima facie evidence that they have been successful, and that Santa Barbara’s carrying capacity has been exceeded.

Local government allows the exploitation because it wants to increase the tax base to help fund its burgeoning pension liabilities and bloated bureaucracies. Politicians invoke “slow growth” to sublimate the rapacious exploitation.

The current brutal, unrelenting drought, however, has exposed the fallacy of that policy. Slow growth is just a euphemism for gradual degradation into eventual demise.

Preserving Santa Barbara’s singular ambience requires “no growth,” not “slow growth.” No one is entitled to live here, and not everyone who would like to can.

Rather than transmogrify the place into a crowded desert by packing more people in here, it should be protected by reducing its population to a level that local resources can comfortably sustain.

For Santa Barbara bigger is not better.

— 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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