A Few Things Everyone in Montecito Should Know About Water Part 1

By Carolee Krieger   |   July 2, 2020

The Public Trust, Montecito, and the Sources of Our Water

Water is a Public Trust Resource. The Public Trust Doctrine, codified by Roman Emperor Justinian in 535 AD, affirms the public’s fundamental right to water as a common resource. This right was reiterated in Britain’s Magna Carta, and later enshrined in the constitutions of the U.S. and California. When considering our local water policy, sources, and planning, it’s important to remember that the principles of the Public Trust supersede any individual’s or entity’s documented claim to fresh water.

Fresh water in Montecito is most reliable from our local sources: Lake Cachuma and Jameson Lake, with a small amount from district wells drawing from our fractured (and therefore weak) groundwater basin. Near-term future sources currently under consideration are a share of the desalinated water produced by the City of Santa Barbara and non-potable recycled water (for landscaping). Local sources have two key benefits: low cost and local control. Ratepayers like you and me have a voice in how local sources are managed.

Montecito is also under contract with the State Water Project, whose source is the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed (also known as the California Delta). The infrastructure that delivers State water to Montecito is controlled by the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Montecito has no influence over the cost of SWP deliveries or how much of our allocation we receive. But it would be a gross understatement to say that State water is unreliable and extremely expensive.

Santa Barbara voters rejected State water in a 1979 ballot measure. Yet in the drought year of 1991, misinformation and fear swayed enough voters for a new State water ballot measure to narrowly pass. Under the terms of our SWP contract, we pay for our full 3,000 acre-foot allocation whether we receive any water or not. In 2014, we received only 5% of our State water allocation, effectively paying $30,000 per acre foot. While 2014 was an extreme year, the numbers averaged from 1998 to 2015 aren’t much better or anywhere near what voters were led to believe: our four South Coast districts (Montecito, Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria) received on average only 28% of our allocation, and paid billions more than we expected. A quick look at MWD’s current budget will tell you all you need to know about how this has adversely affected ratepayers in Montecito. Nearly 40% of total operating expenses pay for less than 10% of our water.

The average effective cost per acre-foot of State water delivered to Montecito from 2010 to 2015 was $15,132. During that same time period, water from Lake Cachuma cost $310/AF. Desal is expected to cost approximately $2,500/AF.

Our local problems with State water don’t end with outrageous costs and lack of reliability. In good water years, we cannot locally store State water to keep for future periods of drought. This year, Lake Cachuma has been at about 80% of capacity. Its sources of that water (rain, runoff, State) are carefully tracked. Should rain fill the reservoir, it’s the State water that gets taken off the books in the amount that spills from Lake Cachuma. Our arrangements to store portions of our State water elsewhere in the state are with private entities and competes with other SWP contractors. This means there is no guarantee our water will be available when we need it, and puts us at risk of a “highest bidder” scenario in times of drought.

Our issues are not unlike other districts all over California. Developing local and regional supplies of water is the future and doing so has bigger implications than we realize.

Desalination is reliable, and technology is lowering the cost and improving the environmental impacts. Control of the facility, distribution of the water it supplies, and mitigation of the environmental impacts will be local. We would be wise to also explore potable recycled water, as is happening successfully elsewhere in the state. In 2022, our debt for the local branch of the SWP pipeline will be paid off, freeing up $1.8 million of the MWD budget annually. Montecito and our neighboring districts continue to make excellent gains at conservation. We have options, and the eyes of the entire State are on us.

With the resources, intellectual capital, and engaged citizenry we have living right here, shouldn’t Montecito be the district to set the standard for all of California? There is no good reason why it can’t be so. We started Earth Day, let’s step up, take a leadership role and show the entire state it can be done.

In Part 2, I’ll explain why the San Francisco Bay Delta watershed is so important to Montecito, and how we’re in a leadership position to make history in California – again.

Longtime Santa Barbara resident Carolee Krieger leads C-WIN’s efforts to design and implement collaborative and lasting solutions for California’s fresh water resources. Santa Barbara 1st District Supervisor Naomi Schwartz named Krieger Woman of the Year in 1997. She has been featured in Mother Jones, Bloomberg, and an Emmy-nominated PBS broadcast about the impacts of almonds on water supply.


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