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Santa Barbara Council Bans New Groundwater Well Permits, Skips Ban on New Swimming Pools

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday night banned new groundwater well permits, declared a higher-level drought and approved additional drought regulations, putting out the message that the city’s conservation successes need to continue.

Council members approved an ordinance banning new private groundwater well permits for properties served by the city’s water system.There hasn’t been a rush on well permit applications like the one seen in the Montecito Water District, but the council decided to be proactive.

Councilman Dale Francisco dissented, saying he was reluctant to impose regulations if there isn’t an issue — Santa Barbara hasn’t seen a private groundwater well application in several years.

“There’s no rush because we’re not in Stage 4 with really significant watering restrictions, and the best example of where there has been a rush is Montecito, where they did exactly that and had a big rush,” Councilman Gregg Hart said.

The water board in Montecito, which is unincorporated, asked the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to temporarily ban new groundwater wells during the drought but was denied. The number of well permit applications in the county increased almost 300 percent between 2013 and 2014. In 2014, 107 of the 248 permitted new wells were in Montecito.

Council members also declared a Stage 3 drought Tuesday night but decided not to ban new swimming pools or limit commercial auto dealership car washing, two options presented by city staff.

The council instead approved the state-mandated restrictions for water use, including a ban on watering within 48 hours of measurable rainfall (a quarter-inch or more in 24 hours) and not overwatering to the point of causing runoff onto sidewalks and driveways.

Water customers have cut back use by 22 percent based on an average year’s demand and the city is now aiming for 25 percent. A state calculation, based on per-capita use, is expecting Santa Barbara to cut back by 16 percent, water resources manager Joshua Haggmark said.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order wants 25-percent cuts statewide, proof that the city is doing better than most at saving water.

Santa Barbara is expecting no water entitlements from Lake Cachuma next year, an unprecedented situation, and Gibraltar Reservoir is “essentially empty,” city staff said. Even if the seawater-to-potable desalination facility comes online, there will soon be a shortfall in water demand, Haggmark said.

The city purchased water from outside the area this year, but probably won’t be able to again, Haggmark said.

“If this continues, there’s nothing next year to buy — there was nothing really this year to buy,” he said. The recent water purchases were really “renting” the water, since the city has to pay it back in 10 years, he said.

Conservation was encouraged by drought rates adopted in July 2014, and even higher water rates will go into effect this summer. It’s a balance of encouraging conservation and keeping revenues coming in, since 70-80 percent of the city’s water costs are fixed, Haggmark said.

If city residents and businesses cut back by more than 25 percent, the city could have to raise rates again to compensate for the lack of water sales. A 25-percent cut in water sales translates to a $5 million revenue loss, he said.

Since conservation efforts have been so successful, the city only added state-mandated restrictions along with its declaration of a Stage 3 Drought on Tuesday.

City staff had suggested banning new pools and limiting car washing at auto dealerships, but there was pushback from the public and council members so those rules weren’t approved. The pool ban is mostly symbolic since no significant water savings would come from banning new ones, city staff said.

About 14 new pool permits come in per year, water conservation coordinator Madeline Ward said. City rules already require people to cover their pools to cut back on evaporation losses.

Allen Cooper, owner of Pintado Pools, has three pool projects in the city’s review process right now and argued that filling a pool takes less water over time than watering the same square-footage of lawn.

Council members said they’d rather focus on restrictions that significantly impacted water savings, not symbolic cuts. Councilwoman Cathy Murillo dissented, saying she wasn’t sure why the city wasn’t adopting all of the proposed restrictions to cut back on water use.

The city could consider a ban on watering lawns later this year, which Ward said could save about 1,100 acre-feet of water per year, significantly cutting down on the expected shortage in water supplies.

Noozhawk news editor 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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