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Local News

Santa Barbara County Water Agencies Given Mandatory Conservation Levels

Most districts are imposing restrictions or rationing in the face of the ongoing drought

Local water districts are imposing tighter restrictions on watering lawns and other landscaping amid the persistent drought.
Local water districts are imposing tighter restrictions on watering lawns and other landscaping amid the persistent drought. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The Montecito Water District implemented mandatory rationing with penalties levied against violators, but residential users still consume more than 200 gallons per person, per day, according to numbers reported to the State Water Resources Control Board.

In a sort of conservation report card, the state has assigned mandatory conservation standards to water agencies, based on self-reported calculations of daily residential water use.

Seven agencies in Santa Barbara County on the list have mandatory cutbacks of 12 to 36 percent based on per-capita water use and conservation efforts so far.

Montecito was given a mandatory 36-percent conservation standard by the state, though its water production for the June 2014-February 2015 period dropped by 47 percent from the same period the year before, according to numbers reported to the state.

The district’s calculations mistakenly included some nonpotable water, so Montecito Water expects a 32-percent conservation standard moving forward, General Manager Tom Mosby told Noozhawk.

The district reported a 228.9 gallons-per-person-per-day figure to the state, which calculated the 36-percent cutbacks.

Before rationing kicked in, the agency was expecting water sales of about 6,500 acre-feet for the 2013-14 year, he said.

“It goes to show you, without rain and with wells failing, things of that nature, people were really hammering district water supplies in 2013-14.”

Now, the yearly sales estimate is about 3,600 acre-feet, which the district admits is good for conservation but bad for the financial bottom line.

To handle that, Montecito took the contradictory steps of approving a water surcharge rate, which levies a per-water-unit fee on all customers, and boosting rationing allocations by 26 percent.

It’s too soon to know if people are using more water with the increased allocations, since it kicks in for the current May billing period, Mosby said.

For future water supplies, Montecito is pursuing its own seawater-to-potable water desalination facility, but hasn't given up on the possibility of partnering with Santa Barbara's existing plant. 

The Goleta Water District’s directors talked about moving to a Stage 3 Drought on Tuesday, the same move the Santa Barbara City Council made official this week.

“Looking at the pure numbers, we would be focusing more on the per-capita number than year-to-year numbers,” Assistant General Manager David Matson said. “We’re confident that we can meet the state reduction targets, but that’s not enough for us. We need to go farther in order to meet our conservation goals here at the district.”

The state considers 55 gallons per person per day as the standard for indoor use, to meet health and safety needs, and the Goleta Water District hit 53 gallons last month, Matson said.

Agencies are focusing on that number — “how low can you go,” he said — more than the year-to-year comparisons since weather can cause major fluctuations.

The Goleta Water District and the city of Santa Barbara have seen results from their conservation programs, and were assigned mandatory cutbacks of 12 percent by the state.

In Goleta, the higher drought rating will bring restrictions on outdoor water use, the best way to cut back on residential use, Matson said. Stage 3 Drought will reduce the watering schedules for play fields, golf courses and agricultural watering.

Matson said Goleta is “investing heavily” in the groundwater system, which is putting it lightly – it’s what the district will rely on exclusively once the surface water dries up.

Seven wells are operating right now, with daily production of 5.6 million gallons when they’re running at 85-percent capacity.

Goleta will hold a Proposition 18 public hearing on June 16 to consider raising water rates and levying a per-unit surcharge fee on all customers.

When the Santa Barbara City Council upgraded to a Stage 3 Drought, water resources manager Joshua Haggmark said the city is targeting 25-percent cuts in water use, even though the state-mandated standard is 16 percent.

Council members considered a ban on new swimming pools — more as a symbolic gesture than a significant water-saving measure — but decided against it.

Drought water rates were implemented last summer, and the city plans to impose higher rates starting July 1.

Higher rates were the turning point for more conservation during the last drought that ended in the early 1990s, Councilman Bendy White noted at the meeting.

Restarting the city's mothballed 1990s-era desalination facility is a lengthy and expensive process, but the city likely will award a construction bid in the next two months, and aims to get the plant operational by summer 2016. 

Like Goleta, the Carpinteria Valley Water District is turning its attention to groundwater, and has been authorizing a list of improvements and repair projects for its wells.

Carpinteria is relying on groundwater more and more, but levels are dropping and can only be replenished by rain, district General Manager Charles Hamilton said.

“Eventually it will be a problem for us, but we’re not sure when,” he said.

The district has to cut water use by 20 percent under state rules, with a reported 98.2 gallons per person, per day.

“We know, tracking our own conservation, that we’ve been getting as a district somewhere between 18 and 19 percent reductions, so we’re generally on track,” Hamilton said. 

Agricultural water use is about half of the district’s typical 4,000 acre-foot annual water sales, Hamilton said, and those growers can’t cut back by 20 percent unless they reduce crop yields or fallow fields.

“Surprisingly, we have gotten reductions, but nothing close to the 20 percent that we’re using as the overall district number,” Hamilton said.

Carpinteria is also in the middle of studying whether a recycled-water facility is feasible, and how much customers could use the treated water, Hamilton said.

Funding for the studywas kicked in by the state, the water district, the sanitary district and the city of Carpinteria. It likely won’t be an asset for at least two years, but would be an additional water resource, Hamilton said.

“We’re having discussions with growers about what their needs would be, how much they could take at the secondary and tertiary treatment levels, and their price thresholds.” 

Carpinteria’s water board is expected to declare a Stage 2 Drought on Wednesday, with all of the state-required restrictions and a few more. Carpinteria calls it Stage 2, but it has comparable restrictions to Santa Barbara’s Stage 3 Drought.

Higher water rates, which were proposed for a June 3 Proposition 218 hearing, “may or may not go forward” in light of the San Juan Capistrano court decision, which made it clear that water rates have to be calculated to cover costs of service.

There’s concern with the way the district structured the tiered water-rate increases, which aren’t set up based on cost of service, Hamilton said. If the district heads back to the drawing board, implementing higher rates would be postponed.

“We think we can get there,” he said. “Lots of agencies throughout the state have done that, set up conservation incentive rates without regard to whether it costs more to deliver more water to those in the highest tier.”

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.

The state's conservation standards have mandatory cuts ranging from 8 percent to 36 percent. (Noozhawk photo / State Water Resources Control Board data)

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