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County Supervisors Deny Request to Temporarily Ban New Groundwater Wells During Drought

Santa Barbara County supervisors were unwilling Tuesday to change the groundwater well permit system, turning down the Montecito Water District’s request to temporarily ban new wells during the drought and require flow meters to monitor water use and groundwater basin levels.

Since Montecito is an unincorporated area, the county’s Environmental Health Services staff handles applications for new permits and major well repairs. County oversight only deals with the location and construction of new wells, not water use, said Larry Fay, director of Environmental Health Services.

But county staff don’t check how many wells are active or how much water is being extracted from them, Fay said at Tuesday's board meeting. 

Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties have approved emergency, temporary moratoriums on new groundwater wells, and the City of Santa Barbara is considering well restrictions tied to the drought, Fay said.

He talked to various water districts and water purveyors in January and there was “little enthusiasm for a countywide moratorium” besides the push by Montecito, he said.

The number of well permit applications increased by almost 300 percent between 2013 and 2014, and many of those new wells were drilled in the Montecito area.

Of 278 permits issued in 2014, 107 were in Montecito, Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said.

The Montecito Water District declared a water shortage emergency and implemented rationing last February and, in a letter to the county, claimed the drought has caused some private wells to run dry and those people are adding to the demand on the district system.

Supervisors weren’t comfortable making major changes to the county’s groundwater well policies and rejected a moratorium requiring flow meters on new wells.

County legal counsel advised against a moratorium that only applied to specific places, but Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said the idea that a temporary moratorium policy couldn’t apply to just one area of the county is “ridiculous,” pointing out that Montecito is so different in its land use planning that it has its very own planning commission. 

Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr, who has a private well to supply water to her house and exterior of her home, suggested reworking the well permit application itself to give the county more information about the use of proposed new wells.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed, voting to avoid any ordinance changes and instead review the permit application and bring it back for possible editing.

There wasn’t support for a widespread moratorium among the crowd of public speakers either, but they all had concerns with the dwindling levels of groundwater.

Residents from all over the county spoke against a countywide ban on new wells, saying there are people who live outside water agency service areas and rely on wells for all their water needs.  

Andy Caldwell — executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business — and others were skeptical about Montecito’s request, questioning whether the district has financial motives to keep people from drilling wells. They pointed to the fact that the district recently increased the amount of water customers can use under the rationing plan, after months of high conservation rates.

Residents from the Cuyama Valley, which relies heavily on groundwater sources, were very worried about the state of water levels and some speakers wanted the county to require flow meters on new wells, to better monitor water extraction and groundwater basin levels.

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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