Montecito Hot Springs Water is Being Taken for Estates – Restore Hot Springs Traditionally Used by the Chumash People

By Montecito Journal   |   February 8, 2022
A pipe leading from the hot springs

Unfortunately, pipes are taking the water from hot springs in Montecito. The pipes are maintained by the Montecito Creek Water Company, a private company that has water rights in Hot Springs Canyon. The pools of hot water that the Chumash used to enjoy are no more. The hot water is taken from above the east fork of Hot Springs Creek near the ruins of the hot springs resort which operated until it was destroyed by the 1964 Coyote Fire. Smaller pipes stick into the hillside, siphoning off the water. They join a larger pipe. The water is carried in that pipe for about a mile and is used to irrigate people’s estates on Hot Springs Road and Riven Rock Road. The pipe empties into a reservoir on the right side of upper Hot Springs Road.

Before the hot spring water was used for irrigation, it was used by people for a long time. The Chumash enjoyed the hot springs for centuries, and considered them to have special healing qualities. In the late 1850s it’s said a 100 year-old Native American, who attributed his health and longevity to the hot springs, led Mr. Wilbur Curtiss to them. Mr. Curtiss had been told by his doctor he only had six months to live, and came to the area for his health. After soaking in the hot water, he was healed of a condition thought incurable, and restored to robust health.

In those days land was sold for a very low price to settlers. Native Americans had no power to stop this, and their land was taken away from them. In any case, the longstanding use of the hot springs by the Chumash was coming to an end. In 1862 Mr. Curtiss acquired land in Hot Springs Canyon, and started the first commercial hot springs resort. The hot springs there were no longer free; one needed money to enjoy them. Mr. Curtiss’ resort was subsequently destroyed by a forest fire.

This traditional area the Chumash soaked in was eventually replaced by more expensive resorts (each burning down from forest fires), culminating in the exclusive Hot Springs Club, in which only a small number of affluent members and guests could use the hot water. Now there’s not even one pool of hot water, just pipes sticking in the hillside. Better to have a monument dedicated to the Chumash there, and pools for everyone, instead of the current uglification.

This beautiful canyon has become marred as a result of water company operations. For example, the main pipe carrying hot water runs down the middle of the trail. Abandoned metal pipes are in plain sight, another eyesore. Broken, rusty pipes stick up in the trail and power line road, posing a hazard. One sees loose metal and plastic pipes in the creekbed, perhaps delivered there by the mudslides of January 2018.

Despite signs placed stating “Tampering and Vandalism of Water Pipes and Signs Will Be Prosecuted,” some members of the public have been vandalizing the pipes, tearing them apart at joints. Often there’s a muddy mess as the hot water pours down the trail. A few years ago I spoke with an employee of the water company about this, and she informed me the vandalism costs around $100,000 a year. Maybe this figure is an exaggeration, but there’s a significant problem with vandalism. Almost every time I have gone up the trail recently the pipes have been torn apart.

Messages expressing public sentiment are written on the pipes and signs. On one sign warning against tampering the following is written: “Chumash are Forever,” “This is Chumash Land,” and “You Can’t Own Water.” On the main pipe here’s some of what’s written: “Stolen Water,” “Protect What Nourishes You,” “Let the Waters and People be Free,” “Healing Waters,” “Heal,” “Dear Waters, May Those Who Honor You Protect You,” “Free the Nip,” and “Water is Life, Free the Water, Love the Water, Free the People.”

If the water company put up a chalkboard so people could express their sentiments, maybe vandalism would be diminished. Or Montecito Trails Foundation could erect a structure where hikers could give their names and addresses, similar to one on top of Mount Whitney. They could share how they feel about the pipes or answer a survey about them.

Hopefully, one day all the hot springs will be restored for public use. The estate owners getting the hot spring water don’t need it. They already have a water connection from the Montecito Water District.

Why should a traditional location used by Native Americans for healing purposes be taken away by a private water company serving the rich?

If the water operation shut down, the employees of Montecito Creek Water District wouldn’t have to be unemployed – they could get work managing the restored hot springs near the ruins. The company could apply for a use permit from the U.S. Forest Service. While on the west fork of Hot Springs Creek there are free hot springs, attracting lots of young people, on the east fork the hot springs could be regulated in terms of the number of visitors, allowing for more privacy. A reasonable fee could be charged. Chumash people could soak in the hot springs for free.

It would be nice to see this beautiful, historic canyon restored with the water overflowing the hot springs into the creek to benefit plants and wildlife. An area of such historical and ecological importance deserves to be protected.

Bryan Rosen

The Shame Game

Today, implementation of legislative or executive policies having force of law are seen by misguided Americans as mass shaming events. People in authority are trying to make other people feel bad about their personal behavior and choices.  

Yes, that is exactly what law does, and it is a good thing, not a bad thing. 

What would our American history look like if we hadn’t shamed white racists in the Confederate South? How about if we had not shamed sexual harassment by movie directors and producers? What would our world look like if we hadn’t shamed aggressive action taken against our navy at Pearl Harbor, or not used pedophile registries to shame sexual offenders? What would the American dream look like today if we never shamed kids for sluffing school and deciding to sell drugs instead? Are we to stop shaming air and water polluters, and excessive water users in drought areas? 

If we want to have a shame-free society, we had better understand it will be a law-free and democracy-free society. The definition of rule of law is a society that empowers the majority to decide what will be shamed and what will not be shamed.  

Kimball Shinkoskey  


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