Will Montecito Go Full Speed Ahead with Desalinated Water?

By Nick Schou   |   May 17, 2020

This month, roughly 4,600 households in Montecito and Summerland received a special insert along with their monthly water bill. “WATER RATE UPDATE!” the flyer declared in urgent all caps, adding that the “Montecito Water District has Plans for Delivering a Secure Water Future.” Stating that its customers “want their drinking water to come from local, reliable supplies with stable, predictable and affordable rates,” the agency announced that, effective July 1, it is entering into a long-term water sharing agreement (WSA) with Santa Barbara to purchase a portion of the city’s desalinated water. “The city’s desalination plant provides the foundation for the WSA, which will cement a regional partnership in water management and provide our customers with a flexible, drought-resilient supply at a guaranteed cost for the next 50 years,” the flyer states.

The agency’s recent bill-insert assures customers that the deal is necessary to avoid dependence on unreliable and drought-prone regional sources like Lake Cachuma as well as the State Water Project, which provides water from the Feather River in Northern California to numerous water districts throughout the state. The agency’s official analysis of the water-sharing deal states that while some customers will pay more for their water with the proposed water rate changes, the majority of rate-payers –56 percent in fact – will either enjoy a decrease or see no change to their monthly bill. 73 percent of customers, they promise, will either pay less or see no more than a $20 per month increase in fees.

“The story of water in Montecito is a long and complicated one. Although it is cloaked in environmental rhetoric, it has, at its core, much deeper issues involving the privileges of power and money, political access and the lack thereof. To understand the debate over water requires an understanding of the various constituencies in Montecito, the land on which they reside, and what lies beneath it.”

Yet some former water district officials as well as local water conservation proponents who spoke with the Montecito Journal couldn’t disagree more with the agency’s plan. They claim the current board’s proposal is irresponsible because it commits Montecito to purchase a half-century’s worth of desalinated water, which is among the most expensive water to produce, whether the town needs the water or not during any particular year. They also worry about the fact that MWD is pushing forward with this scheme during the COVID scare, meaning that the only public open house on the deal, tentatively scheduled for June 3, will likely have to take place via Zoom, meaning that even fewer members of the public than usual will be able to participate in any debate over the plan.

Water District Board member Cori Hayman told the Montecito Journal that she and her colleagues have worked strenuously during the past several years to bring water security to what she referred to as “this side of the mountain,” in other words, without having to rely on Lake Cachuma, the State Water Project, or purchasing water from other districts further inland. According to Hayman, the overall supply and delivery over water to Montecito is complicated by the fact that Lake Cachuma is subjected to numerous delivery constraints, safe-yield restrictions, downstream rights, and fisheries, all of which explains why, at the peak of the recent drought several years ago, the district was on the verge of having to approve emergency-based water rationing. Additionally, Hayman said, the State Water Project is projected to deliver no more than 40 percent of the district’s full allocation of water in future years. “I believe we received only 15 percent of our contracted amount this year,” she added. 

“Water supply availability was continuing to decline to the point where if the drought had continued beyond 2016 at the same severity we were experiencing, we would have been nearly 100 percent reliant on the State Water Project pipeline which has a limited capacity, about a quarter less than we were providing to our customers at the time,” said Nick Turner, the water district’s general manager. A long-term water supply agreement with Santa Barbara, he added, is a cost-effective way to ensure a local and reliable supply of water for the community.

Because of the fact that Montecito will be paying up-front capital costs stemming from the plant’s original construction, a long-term deal helps avoid the possibility that once the plant has been paid off, Santa Barbara might simply end the agreement or increase the price of its water. “An agreement extending beyond 50 years would ensure the district will benefit from the plant capital costs being paid off,” he explained. Whereas the proposed deal is estimated to cost approximately $3,000 per acre foot in one year, Turner said that the State Water Project costs considerably more based on its current and projected reduced future availability. “The State Water Project costs Montecito approximately $6 million per year in fixed costs, whether we are allocated all the water or not,” he said. “This year, based on a 15 percent allocation, we are paying over $12,000 per acre foot for that water.”

According to Turner, the water district is investigating the possibility that it can sell any excess desalinated water to other water districts. “The district is in the process of pursuing opportunities to lease water that is surplus to its needs on an annual basis, and that will be used to offset the cost of the water sharing agreement.” Meanwhile, climate change is expected to make state water increasingly expensive and unreliable. “We expect climate change to cause more frequent droughts of longer duration. Supplies are dwindling and becoming less available every year, so having a supply in our backyard is a prudent thing to do.”

“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”

As any student of California history knows, the world’s fifth largest economy wouldn’t exist without an elaborate, century-long endeavor to harness and distribute water from lush northern watersheds to the vast agricultural fields of the Central Valley and the sprawling suburbs of the Southland.

It is impossible to exaggerate the state’s dependence on this precious resource. According to Carolee Krieger, president and executive director of the California Water Impact Network (CWIN), an estimated 29 million acre feet (the amount it takes to cover an acre with 12 inches of water) falls as rain or snow in California each year. But each year that water is supposed to service 153.7 million acre feet in annual water-rights claims.

The damming and diversion of water and competition over the right to its use has led to some staggering political skullduggery over the decades, chief among them the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which led to the so-called California Water Wars of the 1930s and the deliberate obliteration of Owens River agriculture, as famously depicted in the 1974 film Chinatown. Unfortunately, water politics tend to be so complicated that the general public is largely ignorant of the source of their water and unprepared to hold local officials accountable over how it is used, who pays for it, and how much. 

The story of water in Montecito is a long and complicated one. Although it is cloaked in environmental rhetoric, it has, at its core, much deeper issues involving the privileges of power and money, political access and the lack thereof. To understand the debate over water requires an understanding of the various constituencies in Montecito, the land on which they reside, and what lies beneath it.

Beginning with this story, the Montecito Journal will be publishing a series of articles with the intention to spark a long-overdue public dialogue about the politics of water usage, reliance on regional and statewide infrastructure, drought-related insecurity, desalination, and conservation. This series will focus on several aspects of the history and politics of water in Montecito, including a contentious election over seats on the Water District Board in a town that rarely sees competitive elections.

In 2018, a group called the “Water Security Team” ran a slate of candidates in a successful attempt to unseat existing Montecito Water District (MWD) incumbents while also winning seats on the Montecito Sanitary District’s board. The expressed intention of this well-financed campaign: to rectify the longstanding lack of communication and cooperation between the two agencies. Yet critics claim the effort represents a handful of wealthy campaign donors whose motive is to cement political control over both agencies.

Aside from MWD’s proposed water-sharing plan, which is the primary focus of this piece, the series will also explore Montecito’s complicated relationship with other water districts as well as with the state of California, particularly the State Water Project. It will also explore the recently passed State Groundwater Sustainability Act, which required all water districts in California to regulate ground water consumption. This is a matter of particular relevance to Montecito, where hundreds of private wells have been drilled over the past century, with major impacts on the supply of groundwater that are often overlooked in debates over water usage.

It was only a few short years ago, that, during the peak of California’s most recent drought, many local residents were encouraged and even shamed into killing their grass lawns in favor of drought-resistant landscaping. The frenzy of conserving water became so ostentatious that for a time, once lushly lawn-lined residential streets in Montecito were replaced by a defoliated landscape with occasional yard signage proclaiming environmentally-conscious slogans such as “Brown is the New Green.”

Now, Montecito’s water district is on the verge of approving a plan to purchase a vast new supply of water from Santa Barbara. By law, the agency must first allow for a period of public comment. Accordingly, a public open house is tentatively scheduled for June 3, although the agency hasn’t outlined exactly how this will happen, and it will presumably take place online. The water board is scheduled to meet again on June 25, at which time the board is expected to vote on whether to approve the plan. 

Water Rationing Wars

On its merits, the agency’s justification for the deal sounds solid: After all, who can argue against locally-sourced recycled ocean water in the wake of an epic statewide water shortage? But while both sides of the debate acknowledge that California is just beginning to emerge from one of the worst droughts in history, critics of MWD’s plan argue that Montecito should focus on conserving water rather than consuming more of it. They point out that, with roughly 85 percent of water going to landscaping and other exterior use, the community ranks among the most lopsided water users in the country.

“There is a question as to whether or not the deal is necessary,” said Dick Shaikewitz, who served on the MSD board of directors for 12 years until 2018. “My belief is that it is not needed, and it’s very expensive,” he continues, adding that during the past century, Montecito has typically used only about 25 percent of the water that was available each year even during major droughts. “Everyone is going to be paying an awful lot of money for water we won’t need.”

Shaikewitz lost his seat in the 2018 election when a slate of new candidates joined the water board after collectively raising more than $100,000 in campaign contributions. He believes the proposed deal with Santa Barbara stems from rumblings that began in 2010, during the peak of the recent drought, when the board penalized a handful of customers who used too much water for landscaping.

“We had to do something, or we knew we’d have water problems,” recalled Shaikewitz. “At that time, several wealthy individuals were very upset because they had expensive water during a drought. That situation was kind of the beginning of this new water board. They wanted to get rid of everybody [on the board] and get more water.” Longtime MJ readers may remember the “water rationing” brouhaha thanks to various op-eds and letters to the editor on the controversy that have appeared in the paper over the past few years. (More on this and the contentious 2018 water board election in a future story.) 

A Slam Dunk?

Although it has cost about $90 million in construction and maintenance fees so far, Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, which opened in 1991, operated for only a few months before being shut down for decades and was only brought back online in 2015. While MWD’s proposed water-sharing deal is a slam dunk for Santa Barbara, given that the city is desperate to pay off the plant’s enormous cost, critics say it’s a waste of money for Montecito. They point to the fact that the contract would force Montecito to purchase 1,400 acre feet of water per year at $3,000 per acre foot for five decades regardless of whether or not it needs the water during any particular year.

“What the current board did is find an organization that would help them with excess water,” Shaikewitz argued. “It doesn’t make sense to spend serious dollars when you don’t need it,” he concludes. “Sure, if everyone’s water all of a sudden turns off and there is no more water for the next 50 years, we’ll have a problem. Is that going to happen? Probably not. So, is it necessary to pay $4 million for the next 50 years? I don’t think so.”

Another MWD board member who lost his seat in 2018 is Charles Newman, who also opposes the WSA. “There are those in the community who believe they are entitled to receive as much water as they care to pay for, and there are those who believe it should be used sparingly and in an environmentally responsible way,” he said. “Of course, the more local the source and the more control you have over it, the better, unquestionably. However, the question is at what cost and not just financial but environmental? Desalination is an intense user of energy, specifically electricity. So, this deal comes at an enormous expense and is environmentally irresponsible.”

Bob Roebuck, MWD’s former general manager, also agrees with that assessment. “We had a 1,200-year drought this past decade,” he said. “That meant we had to take some drastic measures to conserve water, but it also led to this water-sharing agreement because some people would rather have more water, even if it’s expensive, rather than be told to conserve.” Roebuck believes that Montecito would be better off relying on state water as well as so-called “water banks,” essentially paper agreements that allow water districts such as Montecito to purchase state water from other districts that don’t need it. “There are a lot of districts that have their own supply of water and will never use all their state water,” he explained. “And it’s a lot cheaper to purchase that water from them than it is to pay for desalinated water for the next fifty years.”

Unlikely Allies

California water politics make for some strange bedfellows, however, and not all conservation proponents oppose MWD’s water-sharing proposal, including CWIN’s Carolee Krieger. She believes that the State Water Project is too overburdened with competing claims and too unreliable in drought conditions for Montecito. “I believe desalination is a way more reliable source than the State Water Project,” said Krieger. And desalination, if done correctly, can be cost-effective and environmentally healthy. It’s the best insurance policy for any California coastal city.”

Krieger added that technological advancements, including in the area of underwater wave energy, show great promise for the future of desalination. And she supports the Water Board’s basic goal of achieving locally sourced water instead of depending on state water or unreliable water banks. “What they are saying is everything we are saying,” she concludes. “The solution for Montecito is to go local.”

 

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