Santa Barbara News-Press

Opinion: Do water district vows hold water?

October 30, 2007 12:00 AM

After years of devastating drought conditions and water rationing, in 1991 Goleta Water District officials made an important promise to their customers. If they'd vote for a $42-million bond issue to acquire 4,500 acre feet per year from the State Water Project, officials would protect future water supplies through multiple drought buffer and water preservation safeguards in a new ordinance.

Terms included a promise that no more than 1 percent per year of the district's total drinkable water supply could be "released to new or additional service connections.''

This promise was to assuage voters' concerns that acquiring state water might lead to dense over-building in the district.

In 1994, that promise was repeated in an ordinance amendment when customers voted to acquire up to 2,500 more acre feet of State Water.

These are the 1991-1994 Safe Water Supplies Ordinances, which have, in effect, successfully served as the district's long-range groundwater management plan for 16 years.

Last Friday, the district's manager, Kevin D. Walsh, submitted a memo to the board of directors recommending approval of a newly-crafted ordinance, which alters rules for allocation of water supplies. One change will increase the amount of drinkable water that can be released annually for development by using a limited carryover provision. It reads in part as follows:

"In October of each year beginning with 2007, the District shall determine the total potable water supply available for new or additional service connections for the following calendar year . . . The amount of water service available . . . that is not allocated by the end of the year for which it is made available shall remain available in the following year, subject to the limitation that no more than 300 acre feet shall be available for allocation at any time."

Under the 1991-1994 ordinance terms, which don't allow any carryover at all, a debated cap of about 130 to 150 acre feet of drinkable water can currently be released each year for development. But Mr. Walsh's memo confirms that under this new carryover rule, it could be about 300 acre feet in one year.

That's double the annual limit voters were promised in 1991 and 1994. Yet, no vote by district customers is offered. This makes it both a broken promise and illegal because both the 1991 and 1994 ordinances state: "If adopted, this Ordinance may not be modified except pursuant to a vote of the electorate of the District."

In the larger picture, many district customers feel it's reckless of general manager Walsh to recommend rules changes that weaken drought protections at a time when future water resources are at great risk. Why gamble on increasing the issuance of binding contracts called "can-and-will-serve" letters to developers when water conditions over the next few years are extraordinarily unpredictable?

For example, two Southland counties already have been declared drought emergency areas. The city of Los Angeles experienced its lowest rainfall in 130 years, leading to 10 percent water usage pleas. And a currently binding court order will stop pumps from pushing Northern California water through the state pipeline for six months starting in January.

In addition, mountain snowpacks that send water to Los Angeles and elsewhere are the second lowest on record. Recent fires have greatly damaged watersheds. Professionals predict mud and toxic ashes will fill much of the Gibraltar Reservoir and will impact Lake Cachuma -- this district's primary water source.

Water district customers may make their views known tonight at the 7 o'clock board meeting held in the Goleta Union School auditorium at 401 N. Fairview Ave. Or write the directors at their following e-addresses:

Chuck Evans,; Jack Cunningham,; Harry E. Dewitt,; Lynette Mills,; and Bert Bertandro,

Chuck Kent is an attorney who lives in the Goleta Water District.

Chuck Kent