Montecito Water Progress Report

By Tobe Plough and Floyd Wicks   |   July 2, 2024

Ten years ago, Montecito was in a water crisis – we were literally about to run out of water. Forced to take action, the Water District rationed water supply to customers, imposed extreme penalties of $45 per 100 acre-feet for overuse, threatened flow restrictors and severe fines, and totally relied on purchasing supplemental supplies of water at very high prices.

All this because the District Board and Staff had failed to plan. There was no State-mandated Urban Water Management Plan, no District strategic plan, and no short-term water supply plan. Just tell the customers to conserve and penalize them if they did not.

A group of Montecito residents decided they’d enough of this dysfunction and encouraged us to run for election to the Board in late 2016. We were successful, and in 2018, the election of Ken Coates, Brian Goebel, and Cori Hayman completed the remake of the Board. 

Montecito Water District Accomplishments 

The Montecito Water District Board has gone from shaming its customers and failing to deal with drought issues, to a Board that emphasizes customer service and has a sound strategic plan. The Board is executing the plan effectively to navigate the risks of future drought and preserve the character of our community. Some of the accomplishments:

– Developed Urban Water Management Plan for the first time in over 10 years; crafted the first strategic plan in decades in conjunction with the District’s 100-year anniversary.

– Eliminated water allocations and extreme penalties for usage above allocation; reduced or eliminated various fees that discouraged customers from protesting District actions.

– Issued permits for new water meters for the first time since 2014.

– Completed temporary and permanent fixes to the District infrastructure damaged by the Thomas Fire and the subsequent Debris Flow.

– Invested $1.9 million in an underground water banking facility near Bakersfield with storage capability of 4,500 acre-feet – a one-year supply of water with no risk of spills or evaporation losses. There are currently 4,500 acre-feet in this secure storage – a one- year supply for District customers.

– Completed a 50-year water supply agreement with the City of Santa Barbara based on desalination supply. Water deliveries began January 1, 2022, and provide about one-third of our water supply. This agreement provided water security for Montecito and Summerland when many other districts in California were implementing draconian cutbacks to their customers.

– Completed two comprehensive studies on recycling wastewater. Although these studies resulted in potentially workable alternatives, none are financially feasible at this time because of rapid inflation in construction costs and cutbacks on State funding. Unfortunately, we have put recycling on hold until conditions improve. We will, of course, continue to monitor the situation and reactivate the effort when appropriate.

– Implemented a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to preserve this critical local source of water supply. A detailed Groundwater Sustainability Plan has been submitted to the State that protects the Montecito and Toro Canyon Basins against the over-drafting and other negative effects that have affected other parts of California. This effort reflected substantial input from local experts and customers. 

– Installed smart water meters that are more accurate and permit much faster detection of leaks and other usage issues. The customer interface application provides customers with the capability to monitor usage on a daily or more frequent basis.

– Developed a reservoir retrofit and replacement project to improve resilience and longevity for the District’s storage tanks.

– Continue the systematic replacement of pipelines to minimize leaks and water loss.

– Adopted a thorough, business-like approach to policy making based on facts and analysis, not opinion.

– Refinanced the District’s long-term debt to create the financial flexibility to secure additional water supplies, minimize customer rate increases, and invest in critical infrastructure upgrades.

– Completed a five-year agreement for the sale of State Water Project water that is in excess of the District’s needs in any given year. The resulting revenue will help offset the cost of desalination water from the City of Santa Barbara.

The Montecito Water Board members have proven that they have the flexibility and receptivity to new ideas and opportunities that will ensure water security for our community now and in the future. At a time when government dysfunction is often the norm, they have quietly done exactly what they were elected to do.

We are gratefully appreciative to the people of Montecito and Summerland for their encouragement and involvement as we continue to make progress on water security and far more resilient communities.  


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