Desal Water for Montecito

By Floyd Wicks   |   January 16, 2020

As the current Montecito Water District Board President, it is incumbent upon me to ensure that the public is provided the facts surrounding the long-term (50-year) draft agreement with the City of Santa Barbara in order to provide a complete “desal” picture to the residents of Montecito and Summerland.

Historical Background

In 2010 and 2015, the Water District failed to file a State-mandated Urban Water Management Plan, which left the District with no strategy as to how it would supply water during a prolonged multiple-year drought. Potential State sanctions for not filing the mandated plan include prohibition from obtaining State grants or low-cost financing.

The former Water Board, under the leadership of President Dick Shaikewitz, voted in favor of moving forward with desal twice. Prior to 2015, negotiations with the City of Santa Barbara for purchasing desalinated water were completely frustrated. The city would not meet with the Montecito Water District’s ad hoc Board committee until the District paid for all city staff and attorneys’ time, up front.

The former Water Board then spent over $500,000 in consulting fees in an unsuccessful effort by the District to independently build its own desal plant. This independent plan was not pursued any further due in part to the District’s election of two new Board members in 2016, Tobe Plough and Floyd Wicks. They recommended that discussions instead be re-opened with the City of Santa Barbara regarding a possible long-term water purchase agreement.

In 2017, the newly constituted Board voted in favor of pursuing a long-term, 50-year deal with the city of Santa Barbara. As a result of that unanimous vote, the District agreed to a term sheet with the Santa Barbara City Council and is now in the final stages of drafting a 50-year contract with the city. The first 20 years will price water at approximately $3,000 per acre foot. The last 30 years of the agreement will be at least 40% lower, due to the amortization of the city’s debt being completed in the first 20 years of the agreement.

Future Water Rates

As to the rate impact of the pending agreement with the city, the Water District Board has retained a new rate consultant in an effort to better manage the required revenue increase over the next three-year period. The rates will indeed go up, but not nearly to the level that were mandated by the prior Board during the drought. Through the prior Board’s actions, customers were “allocated” a certain amount of water and if that amount was exceeded, the customer had to pay $30 per billing unit (100 cubic feet of water) for the first time the allocation was exceeded and then $45 per billing unit if the allocation was exceeded in the subsequent month. The $45 per 100 cubic feet amounts to $19,600 per acre foot! Compare this to the cost of desalinated water from the city, at the approximate cost of $3,000 per acre foot.

With the unanimous backing of the newly constituted Board and through proper planning, Water District Manager Nick Turner filed an updated Urban Water Management Plan in 2017, which calls for approximately 1/3rd of the District’s supply to come from the 100% reliable Santa Barbara desal plant.

The current Board sees no reason to implement the above-mentioned draconian rationing penalty rates again. A signed water agreement with the city means that the communities of Montecito and Summerland do not need to constantly worry whether or not there will be a sufficient “local” water supply. There are some so-called “experts” who believe that there will always be sufficient water to purchase from northern California. These “experts” are ill-informed and may not be aware that even the State’s Department of Water Resources has determined that the State Water Project is only 48% reliable.

In addition, one needs only to visit the Central Valley of California to see that the farming community is facing huge cutbacks on groundwater pumping, due to new State laws relating to groundwater management. This fact will place an enormous strain on dwindling State Water supplies.

Mission of the Water Board

The current Board and District Manager are focused on implementing a plan whereby a majority of the District’s water supply is NOT dependent upon unreliable rainfall. Only a few short years ago, Lake Cachuma stood at a mere 7% of capacity and looked like a mud hole. In addition, the District’s Jameson Lake was at a level known as “dead pool.” Montecito and Summerland deserve better water supply planning and the current Board, District Manager and Water District team of 25 dedicated professionals are committed to fulfilling the District’s mission on a daily basis: “To provide an adequate and reliable supply of high-quality water to the residents of Montecito and Summerland, at the most reasonable cost.”


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