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Landscaping Blamed for Higher Water Use in Montecito, Hope Ranch

Agencies grapple with record demand at a time when the State Water Project is facing the possibility of a shortage.

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State water is vital for customers of La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., which severed its ties to Lake Cachuma in the late 1960s. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

At a time when California and Santa Barbara County officials are urging people to use less and less water, residents in the water districts serving Hope Ranch and Montecito are using more than ever.

In both districts, demand among customers hit record levels in 2007, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.

“Some people just think the water will always come out of the tap,” said Mike Alvarado, general manager of La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., which serves Hope Ranch as well as some of the neighborhoods south of Hollister Avenue starting at Puente Drive. “They don’t think about how it gets there. They take it for granted.”

The water woes in the Montecito Water District and La Cumbre come at an inopportune time. The State Water Project is expected to significantly scale back the amount of water it doles out to local districts across California due to a perfect storm of circumstances that include a governor-declared drought, court-ordered fish restorations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and hotter-than-usual temperatures causing snowpacks to melt too quickly in the Sierra.

For the Montecito and La Cumbre districts, this means a double whammy: in addition to their customers’ insatiable demand, the districts also depend much more heavily on the State Water Project than others on the South Coast.

In the 1990s, when this area when reeling from a drought, the voters in virtually all of the county’s water districts decided in separate ballot measures to join the State Water program as a way to ensure water would continue to flow from their faucets in dry times.

Not all South Coast districts are as dependent on the program. Carpinteria, Goleta and Santa Barbara receive the vast majority of their water from rain-catching reservoirs such as Lake Cachuma, as well as underground aquifers.

But in Montecito, which has a shortage of underground wells, and in La Cumbre, which severed ties with the Cachuma project in the late 1960s, state water is vital. (La Cumbre is trying to reconnect with the Cachuma project.) Montecito receives about 22 percent of its water from the state water project; La Cumbre, 60 percent. By comparison, in Santa Barbara, state water typically makes up just 4 percent of the supply, said Bill Ferguson, water resources supervisor for the city of Santa Barbara.

In both Montecito and La Cumbre, the general managers say landscaping on expansive properties is the most prominent culprit. Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito district, said between 75 percent and 80 percent of his district’s water is used to irrigate trees, grass and gardens.

The districts have initiated letter-writing campaigns aimed at encouraging their customers to conserve water, through measures like taking shorter showers and planting vegetation better fit for dry climates.

But if the city of Santa Barbara is a guide, the real changes probably won’t start to happen until the districts hit the pocketbooks of heavy users. Both districts are strongly considering emulating a successful program in Santa Barbara that steepens the price of water based on the amount used.

The Montecito district currently charges a flat rate of $3.75 per month per unit, which, in the water world, equals 748 gallons. But the district has already begun holding public meetings to get the word out about the proposed rate hikes. In the proposal, users would pay $3.90 for each of the first 20 units. The price would increase for the 21st through 60th unit to $4.15. Anything beyond would cost $4.40 per unit. (The next public hearing on the matter will be Aug. 19.)

La Cumbre, whose flat rate of $3 per unit is among the cheapest in the county, has only begun to discuss the matter of a similarly tiered rate structure, Alvarado said.

In a normal year, La Cumbre’s service area uses about 1,800 acre-feet of water, he said. Last year, the amount was 2,300.

Put another way, the average La Cumbre customer used 306 gallons of water a day, according to a survey compiled by the Santa Barbara County Water Agency. That’s about two and a quarter times the amount used by the average person in Santa Barbara. (The metric also takes into account all urban use, and so includes businesses.)

In Montecito, per-capita use is the highest in the county, according to the survey. There, the average customer uses about 414 gallons a day, or three times the amount used by the average customer in Santa Barbara, according to the survey. But the county’s best per-capita conservers are in Goleta (118 gallons a day per person), Lompoc (111) and Carpinteria (109).

Carpinteria Valley Water District general manager Charlie Hamilton was reluctant to take much credit.

“You see a lot of very small houses with very limited landscaping in Carpinteria,” he said. “I think we have a pretty good conservation-minded public. But I think we’re in a better position, with less landscaping than some of the other communities.”

In Montecito, demand spiked to a record 7,161 acre-feet in the 2006-07 water year, which ended Sept. 30, from 5,887 acre-feet in 2005-06. This year, the amount already has exceeded that amount.

Montecito has taken some action. In April, the district adopted a policy — called Ordinance 89 — allowing it to limit the amount of water that goes to new developments or existing developments seeking expansion of water service.

“Montecito water demand has risen so much in the last two years that we are now at the level of demand we expected to be in the year 2020,” Mosby said. “What it boils down to is customers are using huge, tremendous amounts of water.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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