A Few Things Everyone in Montecito Should Know About Water Part 2

By Carolee Krieger   |   July 9, 2020

The San Francisco Bay Delta, the State Water Project, and Why Montecito Should Care

Less than a year after being elected, the new board of the Montecito Water District is proposing changes to its rate structure and water source portfolio. Definitely a good thing to be considering, but there’s a lot we all need to know before supporting crucial decisions that will affect our water resources for years to come.

Let’s start at the source. Half the water used by all Californians, excluding what comes from private wells, comes from the San Francisco Bay Delta (also known as the California Delta) – one of the largest watersheds in the world. Of all the fresh water used by people in the state, ratepayers like us use about 13 percent, 80 percent is consumed by agriculture (also excluding what comes from private wells), and the rest is used by industry. Water from the Delta is exported via two massive conveyance systems: the federally managed Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. Montecito, like many water districts in Southern California, gets part of its water supply from the State Water Project. We’re literally connected to the California Delta.

As I explained in Part 1, State water is extremely expensive and unreliable. The burden it puts on MWD’s budget for so little water (zero water in times of drought) is mind-boggling and significantly limits our planning options. Montecito’s 2019-20 adopted budget states that 37% of its total operating expenses is SWP costs even if no water is delivered.

The unreliability of State water has a very simple explanation. Of the 29 million acre-foot average annual yield of the entire Delta watershed, 153.7 million acre feet are promised under contract to water districts all over the state. That’s right, five and a half times more than exists. In a 2000 ruling, the 3rd District Court of Appeals called the difference between what’s under contract and what exists “Paper Water.” No amount of expensive improvements or additions to the conveyance system – that Montecito is under contract to pay for – will produce any more water.

Paper water becomes even harder to fathom when you consider the environmental toll on one of the largest watersheds on earth. Since the SWP went on line in the early 1960s, twice the recommended sustainable amount has been exported, most of it to industrial farms in the San Joaquin Valley. As a direct result, 95% of all fish in the Delta are gone. It is estimated that saltwater will intrude inland as far as Sacramento within 10 years. Given the scale of this mismanagement, the DWR’s right to allocate Delta water is in question and its freedom to legally pump water south is currently being challenged in court.

In 2009 the California legislature acknowledged the Delta crisis and passed the Delta Reform Act, mandating that the Delta ecosystem be restored and that exports be “reliable.” Eleven years later no progress has been made. Why? State agencies refuse to own up to their responsibility as stewards of a crucial public trust resource: measure the available water, the claims on it and the comparative costs of alternatives. It doesn’t help that most people are under the false impression that there are no good alternatives.

What does this mean for Montecito? We are a community of leaders with global influence. We punch way above our weight in innovation, conservation, activism and philanthropy. Montecitans change the world. When it comes to water, why are we thinking so small?

By the nature of who we are, when we solve our own issues we influence districts all over the state. By taking a leadership role, we positively impact yet another massive environmental crisis with global implications. A Public Trust Analysis of the California Delta is our immediate opportunity not only to develop regional solutions for ourselves, but to right the wrongs of a hundred-year history of water mismanagement in California, and set policy guidance for water resources everywhere it is scarce. We make history. Again.

A Public Trust Analysis is a sophisticated economic tool used when a Public Trust resource is in jeopardy and disagreement over its use and allocation is interfering with the interests of the State and its citizens. It’s essentially a cost/benefit analysis that includes consideration of natural resources with non-market values. The best-known example is the economic analysis in the historic case that saved Mono Lake: the economic benefits of preserving the Public Trust of instream flows for Mono Lake – the non-market values – outweighed the cost to Los Angeles of finding an alternative water source to Mono Lake – a market value – by a factor of 50.

In our case, the Public Trust Analysis will measure and place values on the resources at issue, develop economic measures of the relevant benefits and costs of alternative water allocations, and identify measures that could mitigate economic costs. Exactly what we need to make sound, forward-looking decisions. Montecito has the means to get this done. Much more importantly, we have a history of action and leveraging our gifts for the greater good at a global scale. We have that opportunity now, let’s not waste it.

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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