Montecito Water District Continues to Face Challenges in Its Effort to Meet Short-Term Water Needs

Montecito Water District’s water supply travails have been heavily publicized.  Last year, Montecito, California drew headlines when the Montecito Water District imposed strict water allocations, and the community’s wealthy residents trucked in water at exorbitant prices to stay within their allocations and meet their water supply needs.

Along with conservation, the district has purchased supplemental water supplies to meet short-term needs and now has sufficient supplies to meet demands through October 2016, assuming water use remains unchanged.

But these efforts have presented a catch-22 for the district.  Conservation, along with supplemental water purchases are needed to meet water demands, especially with reductions in State Water Project allocations.  Conversely, extensive buy-in on conservation has reduced water sales—which has left the district will a budget shortfall.  The district needs an additional $2.4 million, of which $1.5 million is needed for supplemental water purchases, and to meet that need it has approved a Water Supply Emergency Surcharge.  The surcharge became effective on April 1, 2015 and will be phased out once the revenue shortfall and expenses are recovered and water supplies are normalized.

The surcharge, which is being applied like a water rate increase, was not well-received by the public.  A town hall forum about the rate increase drew 80 members of the public who were critical of the increase.  According to the Santa Barbara Independent, “about the only thing not thrown at [Montecito Water District General Manager Tom] Mosby was a rotten tomato.”

In addition to water supply challenges and public resistance to the needed surcharge, Montecito has been dealt a blow in its efforts to secure supplemental water supplies.  A proposed transfer from Slippery Rock Ranch in the Goleta Basin has been challenged in court.

On February 13, 2015, Goleta Water District filed a complaint for injunctive and declaratory relief seeking to halt the proposed transfer.  Goleta Water District argues that the ranch’s owners would be transferring water that is not theirs to transfer.  The Wright Judgement ruled that the Goleta Basin is fully subscribed and adjudicated all of the water rights in the basin.  The ranch overlies a bedrock area that has a natural hydrologic connection to the basin—so the district is arguing that transfers of water from the bedrock area to regions outside of the basin would harm water rights in the basin.

While Montecito is facing obstacles with its short-term water supply solutions, the district is actively pursuing long-term water solutions, including exploring desalination opportunities both with the district and as a partner in Santa Barbara’s desalination project, but a weary public may not supportive of new infrastructure endeavors.  (For background on Santa Barbara’s desalination project, see “Reactivation of Santa Barbara Desalination Plant Moving Forward,” JOW, March 2015).


Written by Marta L. Weismann