Montecito Water District Plans for Dry Weather

By Kelly Mahan Herrick   |   February 20, 2020
Jameson Lake is currently at 80.8% capacity, but holds about 30% less than it did when first built. Water supply and storage capacity was most recently reduced as a result of the 2017 Thomas Fire and 2018 Montecito debris flow. Montecito Water District received a settlement of approximately $8 million from Southern California Edison, some of which will offset costs for securing future water supplies.

This time last year, we were “loving the rain,” but as a dry January stretches into a dry February, Montecito Water District customers are eager for status updates on the Water Supply Agreement with the City of Santa Barbara and the new Rate Study.

A draft contract for a Long-Term Water Supply Agreement with the City of Santa Barbara is still on target for completion in the spring. Commonly known as the “Desal Deal,” the 50-year water supply agreement being written by MWD and the City is based on mutually agreed upon terms. When finalized, the draft contract will have a publicized public review period and go before the governing bodies of both agencies for final vote of approval. Regional cooperation is the foundation of the agreement, which guarantees purchase and delivery. This predictability will increase resiliency for all served. Reliability is key for MWD as it plans for the future, and all current Board members have voiced support for executing an agreement. “We want to have a proactive plan that ensures local reliable supplies at a guaranteed cost. We don’t want our supply or our rates to fluctuate. And we definitely don’t want to resort to the emergency measures the Board had to resort to in the past, such as implementing an emergency surcharge, and being an emergency buyer in the spot market. Desalination is a sure thing – something we can plan on in an uncertain future,” said MWD board member Brian Goebel.

In January MWD started working with Raftelis Financial Consultants with the goal of having new rates in place by the start of the new fiscal year in July, 2020. New rates will not be adopted until after there has been a public review and input period, and a vote has been made by the Board. It is anticipated that a proposed rate structure will be ready in late May or early June for public review and comment. In preparation, dates have been set for two working Board meetings: March 2, 2020 and April 7, 2020. All meetings are public and the most current calendar information and agendas can be found on the District website

The last rate study was performed in 2013 and the last annual rate increase took place in 2016. Rates are anticipated to increase somewhat in the face of inflation, needed infrastructure improvements, and securing a more reliable water supply. The Board continues to assure the public of their commitment to minimizing increases and promoting conservation, while also ensuring adequate water supply for the future.

As MWD plans for future water supply, major considerations include the impacts of climate change on water supply availability, the severity of the recent drought, certainty of future droughts, and compromised capacity in Lake Cachuma and Jameson Lake due to the impacts of the Whittier and Thomas Fires. Consistent with reports across the industry, experts from Westwater Research have advised MWD that it will be increasingly difficult to buy water on the spot market – the District’s “go-to” source during prior droughts. MWD Board and staff have been rigorously reviewing risks, costs, and benefits of water supply alternatives in order to develop a sound plan that will meet the District’s ongoing needs. MWD has also hired Steve Bachman, PhD, to prepare an update of the District’s 2007 Future Water Demand & Water Supply Options Report.

“The District will be facing critical decisions in the coming months and years that may have significant impacts on water supply availability for the community,” says General Manager Nick Turner. “The updated report will serve to help inform the District’s near-term decision regarding participation in a long-term water supply agreement with the City of Santa Barbara as well as its preparation of a 2020 Urban Water Management Plan, set to begin in mid-2020.”

MWD continues to reduce its reliance on rainfall-dependent sources and manage supplies so it won’t be as vulnerable as it was during the last drought. Examples of current initiatives include: Groundwater Banking (2,000 acre feet was banked with Semi-Tropic in 2018 and 2019. This supply was from MWD’s State Water Project allocation, and is now secured for future use); Groundwater Recharge (MWD is resting wells – not pumping – while surface supplies are adequate to allow for continual recovery of the groundwater basin); negotiating a long-term water supply contract with the City of Santa Barbara (a drought-proof supply with guaranteed deliveries that provides a regional approach to water supply management); and pursuing Water Reuse / Water Recycling (MWD is collaborating with Montecito Sanitary District to implement projects that would recycle water at cost-effective volumes).

Also happening at the District, the Montecito Groundwater Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (Montecito GSA or Agency) will host a Public Meeting on February 24, 2020 at 5 pm at Montecito Union School. The meeting will provide an introduction to the Agency and a presentation on groundwater and its importance for the community. The purpose of the meeting is to inform the public and highlight opportunities to get involved. 

The Montecito GSA is actively seeking applicants for participation on two Advisory Committees: A Stakeholder Advisory Committee and a Technical Advisory Committee. These committees are being formed to provide local knowledge and insight during the preparation of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan. Information and applications due March 6 are available on the agency website:

The Agency is also inviting public review and comment on its Communication and Engagement Plan. This guide outlines how and when stakeholders and the public can actively engage in the process and is available now at This is a living document designed to serve as a tool to support stakeholders, the public, and the Agency throughout the development of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

Stakeholders and interested parties are encouraged to attend the Public Meeting as well as the Agency’s regular quarterly meetings, and sign up for the Agency’s E-news email list. Some examples of stakeholders in the Montecito Groundwater Basin are residents, agricultural users of water, private water companies, domestic well owners, land use planning agencies, and environmental users of water.

The Montecito Groundwater Basin supplies numerous public and private wells. Groundwater is heavily relied upon for residential use, along with some commercial and agricultural uses. Available data shows that area groundwater levels are generally low following the worst drought in this region’s history. The Montecito GSA is tasked with developing and implementing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan to ensure long-term sustainability of the basin and prevent undesirable results, such as seawater intrusion and depletion of groundwater supplies. Plan development is a several year process and is currently underway.

Groundwater provides a significant portion of California’s water supply, and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) became State law in 2015. Groundwater basins around the state have been “prioritized” based on factors such as population, groundwater pumping, and the number of water wells. SGMA compliance is required for the Montecito Groundwater Basin which is categorized as “medium priority.” To implement SGMA requirements for the basin, the Montecito Water District Board of Directors formed the Montecito Groundwater Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (Agency) on April 28, 2019 as authorized by California’s Department of Water Resources.

The Montecito Groundwater Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s mission is to ensure a reliable and sustainable groundwater supply for the community through effective basin management pursuant to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Visit; email; or call (805) 969-2271.


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