How Thirsty is Montecito?

Under the terms of a tentative agreement with Montecito, the city would produce the extra supply at its $72 million desalination plant on the waterfront, shown here; but the water sold to Montecito would be a blend of city sources. (Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Barbara)

By Melinda Burns

The seven-year drought is over, rationing has ended, and there’s enough water on hand for the next three years, but Montecito, a small but wealthy community of one-acre lots, large estates and luxury resorts, is thirsting for new supplies.

After years of negotiations, the Montecito Water District is closing in on a deal to buy 1,430 acre-feet of water from the City of Santa Barbara, every year for the next 50 years. That’s enough water to meet a third of Montecito’s annual demand. The city would produce the extra supply at its $72 million desalination plant, at a yearly cost to Montecito of $4.3 million.

“Is this water expensive? It is on the high end,” said Nick Turner, the Montecito Water District general manager. “But if you consider that it’s 100 percent reliable and it’s in our back yard, there are some significant benefits to that.”

And, potentially, some big rate increases. Preliminary scenarios presented at a recent meeting of the district finance committee suggest that the average monthly water bill in Montecito could go up by as much as 50 percent, from $239 now to $375 in five years. Fixed rates – currently $45 per month for a ¾-inch water meter – could go as high as $213, the scenarios show.

The rate hikes would cover a $6.4 million projected increase in the district’s yearly expenditures, from $19.4 million today to $25.8 million in 2024 – chiefly for city water, but also for pipeline replacement and the design of a recycled water plant.

“The community has advocated for water supply reliability, given what they went through in the drought,” Turner said. “We’re pursuing ‘desal’ to fill that void.”

Eighty-five percent of Montecito’s drinking water supply goes on landscaping. The Montecito Water District is exploring rate increases to buy a $4 million yearly supply of water from Santa Barbara; officials say it would save the community from rationing during the next drought (Photo by Melinda Burns)

But the plan has drawn fire from two prominent critics – Bob Roebuck, a past Montecito Water District general manager, and Dick Shaikewitz, a veteran water board director who lost his seat in last year’s elections. They argue that Montecito doesn’t need Santa Barbara’s water.

“We got through the last drought with supplies from the State Water Project,” Roebuck said. “Do we want to get this extremely expensive desalinated water with a 50-year commitment, where we have to use it even when it’s raining cats and dogs, and the dams are spilling? The whole thing just bothers me.”

In 1991, during a six-year drought, Montecitans voted overwhelmingly to import a $4 million annual supply from the State Water Project – as much state water as Santa Barbarans ordered for their entire city. The bill, which covers the construction costs of an aqueduct branch to Lake Cachuma, is due every year through about 2040.

During the drought of 2011 to 2018, normal state aqueduct deliveries were slashed, but the Montecito Water District was able to import $12 million in supplemental state supplies. To pay for them, the district imposed a “water shortage emergency surcharge” of $3.45 for every hundred cubic feet of water, or 750 gallons. For the smallest users, it was a 64 percent rate increase.

Far from raising water rates again, Roebuck and Shaikewitz want the district to discontinue the emergency surcharge, starting now. Without it, Roebuck said, Montecito’s average monthly water bill would be $163 per month. Under the rate scenarios presented this month to the district, that bill would more than double in five years, he said.

“They’ve declared that the drought is over, but the surcharge lives on,” Roebuck said.

The surcharge, plus heavy penalties for over-watering, helped cut the community’s extravagant water use by half from 2013 to 2017, but they triggered a voter backlash. An all-new water board, backed by nearly $200,000 in donations over two campaigns, was elected on pledges to bring “water security” to Montecito.

District reports show that Montecito currently has enough water from Lake Cachuma, Jameson Lake, district wells and the state aqueduct to supply its customers for the next three years. But with a yearly supply from Santa Barbara on hand, Turner said, residents would not be subject to water rationing or penalties for over-watering during the next drought.

“The board does not want to end up back in the situation that it did in 2013,” he said.

The current water board in Montecito was elected over two campaigns during the drought with nearly $200,000 in donations. On the campaign trail and in numerous mailers, candidates pledged to bring “water security” to the affluent community (Photo by Melinda Burns)

In late November, Turner said, the water board will hold a public workshop to discuss the rate increase proposals, which are likely to change substantially between now and then. In years of average rainfall, he said, the district should be able to offset about $1 million of the annual cost of the city supply by not ordering any state water, avoiding the expense of delivery and treatment.

As for the emergency surcharge, “It’s not going away,” Turner said. It will be rolled into future rates, he said, because the district is still contending with the impacts of drought – historically low ground water basins, higher water treatment costs because of the Thomas Fire, and a lingering debt for supplemental state water.

“We need the revenue that the surcharge brings in,” Turner said.

Notwithstanding their efforts to conserve during the drought, Montecitans remain some of the highest water users in California, at 200 gallons per capita per day. Eighty-five percent of their water goes on landscaping. By contrast, Santa Barbarans use an average 75 gallons per capita per day, 50 percent of it on landscaping.

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara, CA

Melinda Burns

Written by Melinda Burns

Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple publications in Santa Barbara County, at the same time, for free.

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  1. This new board was heavily promoted by the Montecito Journal’s Bob Hazard and Jim Buckley. Voters were told the old board was lazy and incompetent and the new Water board would fix all their water problems. The underlying attitude was this: Water availability overrides everything else. If you have to ask how much water costs in Montecito, you can’t afford to live here.

  2. The author refers to Montecito’s water use as “extravagant.” She also says that Montecito residents are some of the highest water users in the state. Just to put these claims into perspective, Montecito uses 3,748 acre-feet of water per year over a land area of 9.3 square miles, which is 400 AFY per square mile. This is actually less than the city of Santa Barbara uses which is 10,136 AFY over a land area if 19.5 square miles, or 520 AFY per square mile. Look at an aerial map of Montecito, it is largely covered in trees. If Montecito further cuts its “extravagant” water use, a good number of these trees will die, an unintended consequence of faulty arithmetic leading to excessive water conservation.

  3. Water used for landscaping that’s sprayed and laden with BTs and glyphostate. It’s killing bees and destroying habitat for people who barely live on the properties and at best visit them for vacation occasionally. But look at my lawn!

  4. SHOUT OUT NOW SB CITY WATER CUSTOMERS! You will be subsidizing Montecito Residents in this deal. $163 water MWD bills to water acre lots in Montecito, while we City pay $800 -$1200/month to water an acre in the foothills to protect City from fires. SBWater Customers in foothills are first line of defense. Lower our water rates for parody with Montecito! “ Montecitans remain some of the highest water users in California, at 200 gallons per capita per day. Eighty-five percent of their water goes on landscaping. By contrast, Santa Barbarans use an average 75 gallons per capita per day, 50 percent of it on landscaping.” problem is City customers pay 3 times more. Obviously, cost and fire prevention are not of interest to reporter Melinda Burns.

  5. Yes! Have High users SUBSIDIZE low users like is the practice by the SB Water District, where you get first 4HCF unlawfully subsidized by customers going over 4HCF. Take from each according to our local government’s preceived notion of your ability to pay. Speed up race to be homeless by running out of money for home ownership because of SBWaterDistrict punitive billing practices.

  6. HaHa! Montecito customers get the cheapest monthly water bills around. Dick was an exceptional leader of the MWD! Why MWD Chairman Dick was not RE-elected is only because ‘Bob Hazards Birnum Boys’ took control of Montecito with Westsider Sharon Byrne. It’s a new day.

  7. As Ms Burns has reported else, Montecito residents have drilled hundreds, perhaps thousands of wells. The exact amount it unknown because no one, County or MWD, has tried to find out if permits were obtained or not. These wells should be acknowledged, permitted, metered and assessed the cost of replenishing the basin they are sucking dry. This water could be used for recycling costs at a minimum.

  8. Thanks Mary Rose. Guess you’re still bitter your candidate lost, but after he forced people to prostate and beg him to reduce the draconian fines he imposed, there was just a wee bit of voter backlash, understandably. I’m one of those angry voters, and I don’t live in Birnam Wood. Then he wanted to increase carbon emissions to truck Goleta recycled water to Montecito and charge huge fees for that…we Montecitans wanted something better.

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