Montecito’s Missing Water

By Nick Schou   |   June 18, 2020

On June 15, Nick Turner, executive director of the Montecito Water District (MWD), gave a two-hour slideshow presentation to the public which outlined the agency’s proposed rate changes that will impact roughly 4,600 households. Thanks to a proposed 50-year Water Supply Agreement (WSA) with Santa Barbara, Montecito will receive a guaranteed supply of agua secured by the city’s recently restarted desalination plant, originally constructed in the late 1980s.

Turner’s presentation was exhaustive to say the least, yet for anyone following the Montecito Journal‘s ongoing series about Montecito’s complex history of procuring water for our naturally parched landscape, it didn’t deliver much news. Previous articles in the Journal detailed Montecito’s historic lack of water, MWD’s century-long effort to solve this problem, how negotiations with Santa Barbara began amidst a severe drought several years ago, and how the MWD’s then-board was unable to reach an agreement to purchase desalinated water from the city.

A half century of guesstimating Montecito’s groundwater pumpage

That fact, along with controversy over emergency water conservation measures and, specifically, the levying of stiff penalties against the heaviest water users, led to the election of a new slate of candidates in 2016 and again in 2018, all of whom ran on the promise to bring “water security” to Montecito.

There is one major component of Montecito’s water supply that has yet to be fully investigated in this series, yet which has everything to do with how much extra water Montecito currently needs as well as the question of who exactly should pay for it. The missing piece in this puzzle? Montecito’s local groundwater basin, a highly permeable (translation: leaky and almost useless) underwater cavity that has been subjected to decades of degradation by private property owners drilling private wells. At this momentous time when Montecito is about to enter into a half-century-long deal to purchase new water, nobody really knows how much water we already have in our underground aquifer, its current capacity, projected lifespan, nor even the exact number of wells that have been drilled into it.

This is an incredibly important point, because anyone who owns a substantial amount of land in Montecito and has enough money to drill a private well is therefore paying either nothing for municipal water or as little as possible to meet their needs. And basic math tells you that when the utility charges higher water rates to fewer customers, those who can’t afford access to private wells have no choice but to pay higher monthly water bills. Unfortunately, that’s as far as math goes in answering the question of just how much water exists underground, much less how much of it is being pumped out of private wells and into Montecito’s world class lawns, gardens, and golf courses.

According to Tom Mosby, the MWD’s former general manager, who worked for the agency for nearly 20 years until 2016, there was never any precise monitoring of private well drilling or private-party water pumping in Montecito’s history. During a major drought in 1973, Montecito created a moratorium on new water meters, which is generally thought to have dramatically increased the number of private wells. “Without the ability to obtain a water meter, you had no option but to go to the County and obtain a permit to drill a well,” Mosby said. “The County didn’t require you to measure the water taken from the aquifer and report it.”

By the 1970s, of course, Montecito residents had already been drilling wells into our naturally bone-dry landscape for about a century. There is no official data on how all that drilling affected the aquifer over the decades. But at various times in history, MWD hired consultants to prepare reports estimating the volume of water that had been pumped out of the ground basin.

One such report in 1979 found that since 1929, annual private water “pumpage” had fallen from about 1,700 acre feet per year to about 700 acre feet, a number that was still far higher than what MWD ever pumped, the highest number being well short of 500 acre feet in the mid-1970s. But that report only includes four actual pumpage numbers, for 1929, 1954, 1962, and 1979. A subsequent report from 1990 shows that average private water pumpage during the previous decade grew from an average of 709 acre feet to 1025 acre feet.

According to Mosby, those numbers are hardly reliable, however. “There are no meters at all on any private wells in Montecito,” he elaborated. “These estimates are only guesses provided by consultants, and nobody knows if they are accurate. There is no validation of that data because there are no meters to justify that data, so you just hire consultants to look at water levels. They did the best job they could, but overall, we do know that at this point there isn’t much water there.”

Groundwater Sustainability Becomes the Law of the Land

To help address the lack of data, the MWD recently won $2.1 million in state funding to study Montecito’s groundwater basin. The study is part of MWD’s ongoing effort to adhere to a 2014 state law that requires all water districts to create a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. According to MWD director Cori Hayman, when that law was passed, Montecito’s ground water basin was considered a low priority under the law, as opposed to certain high-priority underground basins that were on the verge of completely drying up and thus required immediate emergency measures to protect.

The 1980s saw a growth in private well drilling, the trend continues

That same year, Mosby led an effort to increase Montecito’s municipal water pumping from 300 acre feet to 600 acre feet per year. Two years later, after Floyd Wicks became president of the agency, the board began to pursue new and more accurate studies of the groundwater basin which might take into account the large number of private wells that had been drilled during the recent drought. “As a result, the groundwater basin became a medium priority basin by the time we formed our Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) in 2018,” said Hayman. “Through that process, there was extensive public outreach and community meetings,” she added. “Now we have a number of projects to study the ground basin, including (other degradations such as) seawater intrusion into existing wells and the drilling of new private wells. Our ultimate goal is to determine the actual safe yield of the basin.”

According to MWD’s Turner, the agency has five years to complete a plan to ensure that Montecito’s groundwater supply is safely maintained. The agency has hired a consultant to examine Montecito’s topography, measure what is being grown on the land, and what water that growth consumes, and then compare that to what amount of water the basin is providing each year. Among the questions MWD hopes to answer is how much water is spilling out of our notoriously leaky underground water basin into Carpinteria’s aquifer, which itself lies below the largest concentration of thirsty cannabis farms in California. “We may drill a monitoring well to better understand how water is moving over there,” Turner said.

The Tragedy of the Commons

Anecdotally, according to longtime residents of Montecito, the town’s beloved network of seasonal creeks used to flow nearly year-round, with certain stretches occasionally deep enough to function as recreational swimming holes. Yet in recent decades, whether as a result of climate trend, more frequent droughts, private well-pumping, or possibly a combination of several of those factors, the water just isn’t there anymore. It’s a riddle that MWD’s Turner says he hopes to help answer thanks to grant funding. “We will take into consideration all the water that flows into the basin, creek flow, imported water via the South Coast Conduit, and also extraction, whether by the district or by private well extractions,” he said. “It will determine the big picture of what’s going on.”

No amount of drilling can fix steep mountains combined with sporadic rains and a shallow and leaky coastal aquifer

For his part, while Mosby is glad that MWD is taking measures to study the ground water basin, he questions how much cash the district should spend on this subject, given how paltry Montecito’s underground water supply is to begin with. “The district is right to question the number of private wells that have been drilled and to say that this is a public resource that is not being monitored or properly managed,” Mosby said. “But one thing I know is that the ground basin is relatively shallow, and most wells only go down to 400 feet. When we measure those wells, we see that if you have two solid years of rainfall, the basin fills up and then you can pump water from your well. But without that rain, the basin empties and there’s nothing to pump.”

Even though Montecito hasn’t experienced two consecutive years of rainfall sufficient enough to recharge the ground basin since 2005, MWD is currently seeking to hire a full-time employee to study the issue, something that makes no sense to him. “It’s been 15 years since we’ve had enough rain to recharge the basin, and with climate change, it’s likely that it will be even less frequent,” concluded Mosby. “I’m just not sure why we’re putting so much effort into this.”

While new data will certainly help define the extent of the groundwater problem, not even Turner is expecting the study to provide much in the way of good news. “Over the last decade and a half, we have been in some level of drought, and during that time, for seven years, we had the worst drought on record,” he said. “All of that has certainly drawn down the overall basin. Meanwhile, we are looking at all the known permitted and unpermitted wells. It’s still being studied, but it is safe to assume we have north of 1,000 private wells in Montecito. We hope to have the study done by the end of the summer.”

On June 25, Montecito’s water customers and the general public will have a final opportunity to voice their opinions about the proposed water supply deal with Santa Barbara. That’s when the agency will host an online public hearing about the water rate changes and the desalination proposal. To participate, simply go to the agency’s website,, on the morning of the day of the meeting, and look for the exact start time as well as the online link. This is the last opportunity to weigh in on the proposal. As of press time, Montecito’s water board was scheduled to vote on the proposal immediately following the hearing.


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