Can Montecito Become Drought-Free?

By Bob Hazard   |   April 19, 2018

This town could use a little good news. It has been a little more than a year since we elected two new members to the Montecito Water District Board of Directors. Are we any closer to the goal of water security?

Montecito Water District (MWD), its board, its management, and its employees have all been severely tested by the twin disasters of the destructive Thomas Wildfire, and the related January 9 debris flow that took the lives of 23 of our neighbors and friends and destroyed or severely damaged 10 percent of our Montecito homes.

The debris flow caused significant damage to our water delivery system. That arrangement has been repaired, and the cost of infrastructure losses will be covered for the most part by FEMA and Cal OES. The efforts of MWD general manager Nick Turner during this recovery phase have generated high marks for leadership, judgment, and professionalism, so there is reason for optimism.

Development of a Strategic Planning Process

The former management team had failed to file a State-mandated Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) in both 2010 and 2015. The State requires all water utilities that serve more than 3,300 customers to file a strategic plan once every five years or face a cutoff in eligibility for state loans or grant funding.

In June 2017, the MWD Board unanimously adopted its first Urban Water Management Plan since 2005. In developing the new strategy, all five directors were actively engaged in reshaping the Board culture into a collaborative team, capable of crafting a focused strategic plan and implementing its proposed solutions. Something, apparently, the previous board was unable to do.

Restructuring the MWD Water Supply for Added Water Security

For FY 2017-18, MWD projected a customer consumption of 4,000 acre-feet (AF) per year of water, a 31% increase over the record low of 3,125 sold in FY 2016-17, but  still consistent with the one acre-foot per household use in conservation communities throughout the state.

As of April 1, MWD enjoys a diverse water portfolio with an available water supply of 6,394 AF, subject to the continued ability to purchase supplemental water to replace expected shortfalls in Cachuma, State water, and Jameson Lake.

Rainfall Dependent Water Sources

Lake Cachuma stands at 40% of its full capacity. MWD expects a 40% delivery of its allocation in 2017-18. MWD also has 956 AF of carryover water and 734 AF of stored state and supplemental water in Cachuma. The 2017/18 allocation is expected to generate 1,060 AF.

Jameson Lake now stands at 3,300 AF, or 64% of its total capacity of 5,100 AF. Thomas Fire debris flow has temporarily halted deliveries since January, but deliveries of some 30 to 50 AF per month are expected to begin soon, supplemented by water from Doulton Tunnel.

Table A State Water is readily available when it rains, but unavailable in drought when needed most. Worse, it has a high fixed-cost component. Expect deliveries of 20% of allocation in FY 2017-18, or some of 660 AFY of a 3,300 AF allocation.

Purchased Supplementary Water. At least 2,000 AF will be needed in 2017-18. If not used, excess is presently stored in Cachuma and San Luis reservoirs where it can be subject to administrative spills, fish releases, and punitive evaporation formulas. 

Groundwater. Montecito has rather small groundwater supplies relative to its neighbors in Carpinteria and Goleta. MWD wells are currently expected to provide some 40 AF per month, rising to 60-70 AF per month if drought conditions persist.

Droughtproof Water: New Sources to be Developed

Possible new sources of MWD water, that are more reliable and less rainfall-dependent, include: desalinated water, 1,250 AF, recycled water, 500 AF, semi-tropic water storage, 1,500 AF.

Desalination Negotiations with the City 

MWD has restarted negotiations with the City of Santa Barbara for a 50-year water purchase agreement whereby MWD would receive a guaranteed 1,250 AF per year of potable city water from desalination or alternate water sources. In return, the City would receive a guaranteed and substantial fixed payment to recover a proportionate share of its capital costs for its desal plant investment without surrendering any equity ownership.

Currently, the City is generating 3,125 AFY of desal water. If furnishing 1,250 AF of water to MWD for the next 50 years becomes a problem in periods of extended drought, the City has the option to increase its desal plant to its permitted capacity of up to 10,000 AFY and lower unit operating costs. Any final deal needs to be a Win-Win for both the City and MWD, and it is in this spirit that negotiations are going forward.

Increased Water Security: Recycled Water 

For the first time in history, the 2015 Urban Water Management Plan, addresses a specific and measurable commitment to recycled water. The District is engaged in a Recycled Water Feasibility study. The advantage of recycling is that it is environmentally responsible to reuse the treated wastewater currently being released into the ocean off Summerland Beach and Butterfly Beach. Wastewater, treated to a higher standard, can now be converted into indirect potable use by injecting it into local aquifers for later extraction, or to direct potable use as soon as the law in California catches up with the science.

Already astronauts in space stations drink recycled wastewater. So do residents in Israel, Singapore, Australia, and Namibia. San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have advanced test programs for direct potable reuse, funded in part by state water research grants. Orange County and Silicon Valley have taken the lead in direct potable reuse. The City of Santa Barbara has joined the race. How long can an environmentally sensitive Montecito turn its back on the idea of recycling and reuse? 

It is important that MWD and Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) work together cooperatively to convert Montecito wastewater to recycled use.

Increased Water Security: Groundwater Banking and Storage

For the first time in its history, the board voted unanimously for a new underground “water banking system” to increase the reliability of State and supplemental water. MWD has purchased equity shares in the California Semitropic Water Storage District, an area of 220,000 acres near Bakersfield, with an underground storage capacity of 1.65 million acre-feet. 

Water purchased by the District and stored in the San Luis Reservoir, was subject to loss from mandated releases and administrative spills, evaporation, fish releases, and pipe and pump restrictions to convey it to Cachuma. Under the new agreement, MWD can bank its excess State or purchased water in times of heavy rainfall in Semitropic’s underground storage basins to be withdrawn during periods of drought. The ability of the District to withdraw 1,500 acre-feet of water each year provides a supply of reliable banked water supply equivalent to approximately 50% of the water used by Montecito and Summerland residents in 2016-17.

Increased Water Security: Purchase of Supplemental Water

 Supplemental water purchases allow MWD to build strategic reserves assuming that excess water can be stored without fear of future loss, or to pay down or eliminate previous water exchange liabilities. 

In 2016, the board purchased 5,000 acre-feet of AVEK (Antelope Valley East Kern) water agency at a cost of $253 per acre-foot, plus 2,000 acre-feet of Santa Maria excess state water at $600 per acre-foot. This year, the board has authorized the supplemental purchase of an initial 3,000 acre-feet at a price not-to-exceed $300 per acre-foot as additional future drought protection.

Lower the Cost of Water to Montecito Customers

For the first time in five years, MWD water rates were not increased in July 2017 by a mandatory 7.4% increase. There will also be no automatic 7.4% increase in rates in July 2018.

Last year, as a result of improved water conditions, mandatory rationing penalties of some $3 million per year were terminated by the board, eliminating hundreds of contentious customer appeals for overuse of water, undetected leaks, inconsistent meter reads, and arbitrary monthly allocations. This year, the board waived the fixed meter charge for the entire month of January 2018 because service was interrupted for a good part of that month.

Future Challenges

The Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows have reminded us how critically important our water infrastructure is to the safety and well-being of this community. We have had four major droughts since 1976: 1976-77; 1987-92; 2007-09; and 2012-18.

During the last half-century, we have been in drought for 15 years, or 30% of the time, but during the last decade, we have been in drought eight years, or 80% of the time. Drought-proofing Montecito is not an option; it is a necessity. Without water, this community, which is arguably one of the best places to live on this planet, becomes another waterless Cape Town, South Africa, or a dried-up desert. 

MWD Leadership

This fall, three board seats out of five on the Montecito Water District Board will be up for election. We need board members who have the knowledge and experience to work cooperatively with each other, with other districts, and with our County agencies, to upgrade our infrastructure as it is rebuilt over the next months and years. 

There are sizeable financial commitments to be made to secure water independence, which makes it even more important to have a MWD Board whose members are both prudent and financially astute. For the first time ever, it is within the power of the board and management of the Montecito Water District to achieve a more reliable and drought-proof supply of water for the community – but only if we make the right leadership choices.


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