Monday, July 16 , 2018, 3:52 am | Fair 65º


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Santa Barbara County Sends Water Supply Project List to Governor with Hopes for State Financial Aid

County also formed a Santa Ynez groundwater sustainability agency and reviewed the trajectory of its underfunded retirement system

The groundwater sustainability agency for the Santa Ynez River Valley will include board members from nearby water agencies. Click to view larger
The groundwater sustainability agency for the Santa Ynez River Valley will include board members from nearby water agencies.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

Snapped to attention by six years of drought, Santa Barbara County has sent a list of water supply improvement projects to Sacramento with hopes that the state will help finance it.

Last fall, a state task force asked the county to put together a slate of projects to boost local water supplies’ drought resiliency, enhance long-term water planning and help inform California’s own water planning.

The county Office of Emergency Management convened an “action working group” to fulfill the task force’s request, which culminated in a February report outlining seven projects that would either bring in additional water or enhance and protect existing supplies.

The cooperation was also spurred by growing calls by decision makers at all levels for a more regional, cooperative and proactive water supply plan.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead to send the projects proposal to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office after it received the endorsement of county water agencies.

“I’ve gotten reassurances from the state Office of Emergency Services even this week that they want to continue to support us in this endeavor,” Office of Emergency Management Director Robert Lewin said Tuesday.

He said the county had been “on a knife’s edge” in terms of water supplies last year: Many areas found themselves overly reliant on State Water Project deliveries, and a failure in that conveyance system would have caused a full-blown water crisis.

After plentiful rain earlier this year gave water agencies some breathing room, some agencies eased certain conservation restrictions.

That’s only going to hurt their chances of getting state assistance for these projects, argued First District Supervisor Das Williams.

The former state legislator said conservation efforts are a key criterion for state funding, and that easing those requirements gives up leverage and presents a confusing picture if the county wants to submit the proposal while saying it’s still in a state of emergency.

Santa Barbara County remains at the heart of what’s left of California's drought.

The projects headed to the governor’s office include:

» The reactivation of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, which is expected to begin producing 3,125 acre-feet a year of potable water in May. Regional water officials have expressed interest in — and Santa Barbara is securing funding for — expanding the facility to produce up to 10,000 acre-feet of water to be used regionally.

» Re-acquiring more than 12,000 acre-feet of Table “A” state water that local agencies have not drawn on since the 1980s.

» Exploring the possibility of treating wastewater in Goleta and Carpinteria for either potable use or to replenish groundwater basins.

» Maintaining the emergency pumping facility at Lake Cachuma.

» Better interconnecting the water systems of Santa Barbara and the Goleta Water District.

» Removing toxic hexavalent chromium from impacted wells in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sustainability agency formed for Santa Ynez Valley’s eastern groundwater basin

The Board of Supervisors also approved forming a sustainability agency for the eastern management area of the Santa Ynez River Valley groundwater basin.

The entire groundwater basin stretches east from the lower west-facing coast of the county to a little way past Lake Cachuma.

The eastern management area overlays Solvang, much of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District and the SYRWCD Improvement District No. 1.

The agency’s committee will be made up of one member each from Solvang, the two water districts and the county water agency, though their votes will be weighted differently.

The Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians is also interested in joining in an advisory capacity, reported county water resources program manager Matt Young.

In December, the board approved groundwater sustainability agencies for the western and central areas of the basin, which differ hydrologically and sit below different jurisdictions.

The county is planning a “basin coordination agreement” to link the three agencies.

Young said that one of the new groundwater sustainability agency’s tasks will be a hydrological study to fill in gaps in groundwater data.

The agencies are the product of a 2014 state law intended to make local agencies responsible for sustainable groundwater management.

Review of county retirement system

As concerns over mushrooming pension costs come to a head for governments across the state, the supervisors reviewed the trajectory of the county Employees’ Retirement System.

From the end of fiscal year 2015 to the end of fiscal year 2016, the system saw unfunded liabilities jump $319 million, to just over $1 billion — a 31-percent increase.

Amortizing it is projected to last into the mid-2030s, said Greg Levin, the retirement system’s CEO.

The county’s contribution to the unfunded liabilities will increase for several more years before leveling off and finally declining to zero. 

The pension issue has become a chief budgetary concern for the county.

Behind the pension increases was the October decision by the county retirement system to lower the assumed rate of return by 0.5 percent, which increased the county’s pension contributions. Those contributions now exceed the funds the county had set aside for any anticipated increases.

That is paired with the county’s need to make up for shortfalls in the pension fund’s investment earnings, which makes up 58 percent of the system’s revenues. The county and its 4,200 employees make up the rest of the revenue.

Levin also noted that lifespans are also lengthening for Santa Barbara County retirees, who already out-live the average CalPERS retiree.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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