The Water Wells of Montecito
After a wet November, a damp December, and a soggy January, February, and March, the good news is that Montecito water bills have never been lower. Seventeen storms have dropped 32 inches of water drenching our community. The heavy downpours in Montecito have temporarily eliminated our “extreme drought” designation but have raised a number of new issues for the Montecito Water District (MWD) regarding the future adequacy and safety of our Montecito groundwater basin and its water wells.
Just beneath the earth’s surface in Montecito lies our most precious water resource – the last line of defense in drought prevention and a lifeline for the 4,200 homeowners in Montecito and Summerland who depend upon the MWD for their drinking and landscaping water. Of these homeowners, approximately 1,000 have private water wells.
The Montecito aquifer, also called its Groundwater Basin, encompasses 6,270-acres beneath Montecito. It is bordered on the east by the 6,160-acre Santa Barbara Groundwater Basin; and on the west by the 8,120-acre Carpinteria Groundwater Basin.
The safe water yield from the Montecito Groundwater Basin, defined as the total amount of water that can be withdrawn on a continuous basis without resulting in adverse impacts, has been variously estimated at 1,100 to 2,500 acre-feet per year (AFY).
The Private Well Conundrum
Private water wells have been drilled in Montecito for drinking water, irrigation, and landscaping water since the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, long before the existence of MWD. For non-adjudicated basins, landowners hold the rights to water beneath their properties.
Some private well owners depend upon their wells for both potable and non-potable water. Others use their well water for landscaping or agricultural uses but rely on MWD for their supply of potable household water.
No one knows for sure how many private wells there are in Montecito, where they are located, or how much water they extract from the Montecito Groundwater Basin. Before the most recent eight-year drought, the number of private wells was estimated to be in the neighborhood of 500 wells.
Today, that number is thought to be in excess of 1,000. The District’s former romance with water rationing and rationing penalties incentivized hundreds of Montecito homeowners to pursue a private drilling option to secure a reliable supply of water. The most recent “drill now” movement was based on a fear of losing millions of dollars in trees and landscaping.
With recent record rainfall and a newly recharged aquifer, the number of private wells in Montecito could climb to 1,500. Residents reading about recharged aquifers may drill more wells as their preferred solution for water security and independence from MWD and its unreliable state water supply.
Private Well Owner Benefits
Private well owners are not asked to bear their fair share of the fixed costs of the community’s water delivery system. They contribute little to both the cost of delivering water for wildfire protection, and to maintaining and recharging Montecito’s aquifer, an activity that prevents overdrafting our groundwater basin.
During periods of a prolonged drought well owners have the option to turn to MWD for greater access to the public water system during future water emergencies. They can say, “My well has gone dry because too many other residents have stuck too many straws in Montecito’s depleted water basin and have drained it dry. Please send me your stored water, even though I have contributed little in the way of fixed costs to deliver that water.”
When threatened with an urban wildfire, well users can plead to firefighters, “My home is on fire. Please hook up your fire hoses to MWD fire hydrants to save my neighborhood because there is not enough water in my well, and it comes out too slowly to fight a fire.”
If the quality of their well water drops significantly, well users may turn to MWD for relief, noting that “Too many wells drilled by our neighbors have either tainted our well water or decreased its flow.”
What Needs to Happen
Fixed expenses for water delivery infrastructure, such as aqueducts, reservoirs, dams, and canals, like the cost of roads, school districts, court systems, police protection, or fire district services, need to be shared. Today, those with wells receive the benefits of a secure water delivery system that benefits all residents, without paying their fair share of the bill.
One intriguing idea for creating an equitable system for recovering the fixed costs of the infrastructure system would be to emulate the Montecito Sanitary District billing system where the amortized fixed expenses of necessary infrastructure improvements are transferred to the property tax rolls and are paid for by the entire community.
The Montecito Sanitary District (MSD) receives one half of one percent of the property tax revenue collected by the County of Santa Barbara for all parcels within the District. In addition, a Sewer Service Charge (SSC) is billed on the property tax roll, amounting to $1,480 a year for all single-family homes that receive sewer service. This charge is reviewed annually. There is no monthly billing.
MWD should consider separating its fixed charge component, which pays for the water delivery infrastructure from its variable charge component based upon monthly water usage. Transferring the fixed charges to the property tax rolls to be paid for by all parcels in Montecito would create a more equitable and more transparent water billing system. Such an arrangement would lower the monthly water bills for MWD customers who would only be billed monthly for variable water usage.
Fixed costs, borne by all parcel owners, regardless of whether they own wells or not, would include infrastructure charges allocated to MWD by JPA (Joint Power Agencies) such as COMB (Cachuma Operations & Maintenance Board), SWP (State Water Project), USBR (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation), and CCRB (Cachuma Conservation & Release Board). Other allocated fixed costs could include the infrastructure costs of the Santa Barbara desalination plant that benefit the whole Montecito community.
A Sustainable Plan
As input to a fairer and more equitable system of water billing, MWD needs to know more about well usage. It is impossible to manage what you cannot measure. To build a more accurate data base, the MWD selected Dudek, a reputable California consulting firm with more than 400 planners, hydrogeologists, geologists, biologists, civil engineers, contractors, and support staff, to develop a state-approved “Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the Montecito Groundwater Basin.”
The purpose of the plan is to guide the District through the fact-finding, regulatory, public outreach, permitting, and implementation of a planned process to improve this community’s ability to deal with long-term drought on an equitable basis.
The Dudek study will break new ground. Historically, Santa Barbara County has had an incomplete record of well permits in Montecito and no record of extraction quantities from the Montecito basin. Factual data, not uninformed opinions, is needed to guide water policy.
Recharging the Water Basin
For the last 50 years we have relied on uncertain rainfall as the only feasible way to recharge the Montecito Groundwater basin. There are new options, adopted by other water and sanitary districts, that safely allow the injection of excess desalinated water, or an excess of recycled treated wastewater, or water from Jameson Lake, into our aquifer for storage and future use. Water usage in Montecito is highly seasonal, lower in the wetter, winter months and higher in the hotter, drier summer months. Creating a local underground water bank, free from evaporation, would allow for storage in the winter months and withdrawals in summer months when water is needed most.
Desalinated water, or similar water from a potential agreement with the City of Santa Barbara, will already be treated to a potable standard, and can be stored underground in Montecito in a water bank when not needed for current use. Recycled wastewater needs to be injected into the groundwater basin for four to six months before it can be extracted for indirect potable reuse (IPR). Advanced treatments now being tested worldwide will lead to direct potable reuse (DPR) becoming approved in California, perhaps as early as 2023.
A recharged basin, acting as a water bank, allows those residences in Montecito with wells to pump more water, receive greater wildfire protection and receive the benefit of higher quality water from the additional water injected into the groundwater system without sharing the costs. At the same time, a recharged basin will encourage more homeowners to dig new wells, which could further deplete MWD revenues and force a smaller number of MWD customers to pay for rapidly increasing fixed costs, unless those costs are allocated to all parcels in Montecito on the property tax rolls.
Time for Study
There are a number of issues concerning groundwater basins and well usage waiting to be resolved by MWD. The most important one is “Can comprehensive hydrogeologic and sustainability modeling of the Montecito basin determine groundwater flows, storage capacities, possible injection well locations, runoffs, and sustainable yield estimates?”
Let the studies begin. Only one thing is certain: Water is a wet and wonderful resource, but only when there is enough of it at the right time in the right amounts for human, animal, and plant consumption. Managing water properly and efficiently will remain a long-term challenge for the entire Montecito community.