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Water: Paying, But Not Getting

Never mind that Santa Barbara had already paid its $60 million for its 2014 annual share.

Aug 27, 2014

Montecito is the wealthiest suburb of Santa Barbara, and one of the wealthiest in the country. The article below describes Montecito as "home to Google’s Eric Schmidt, Warren Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger, entertainment mogul Tom Freston, director Ivan Reitman, and stars Ellen DeGeneres, Dennis Miller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Rob Lowe with George Lucas and Kevin Costner owning adjacent beachfront homes. Or, as one local realtor puts it, “just about everyone in the industry.” And one more thing: it sits on land with very little water.

Last Fall residents were asked to cut consumption 30%, and most of them did, but then things got even worse. There was a building moratorium and no new swimming pools were allowed. In addition, pools could not be refilled with town water. Some pay tankers to truck water to them.

Oprah has an estate there and last year paid $125,000 for water. She's cut that in half. Still, 837 residents didn't get the message or didn't care and paid over $500,000 in penalties.

But, enough about all that. Here's the really good part. In the early 90's during another drought residents of the county voted to become part of the State Water Project, thinking it would solve their problems. Article author Ann Louise Bardach points out "in January, the Department of Water Resources announced that there would be zero water from the state water project for the entire state. Never mind that Santa Barbara had already paid its $60 million for its 2014 annual share."

This is probably unexpected news for Montecitoans, just now realizing what Central Valley farmers have known all along, that you have to pay into the state system the full price regardless of how much you get. Even if it's zero. This is also true of other water districts including the giant Metropolitan Water District of SoCal which is a cooperative of 26 cities and water agencies serving 19 million people in six counties.

We wonder if the people of SoCal will ever realize they pay for water they don't get.



Lifestyles of the Rich & Parched
How the Golden State’s 1 percenters are avoiding the drought.

Ann Louise Bardach

Many mornings, just before 7 a.m., a large tanker truck pulls up to the grand gates of Oprah Winfrey’s 40-acre estate in Montecito, California. Inside is neither merchandise nor produce – just water.

A year ago, Oprah’s annual bill from the Montecito Water District was just shy of $125,000. This year, it is less than half. Like many in this wealthy enclave, Oprah has cut back on her consumption of district water. That said, her property has its own wells and a small lake and, according to neighbors, there are the trucks.

These days, tankers can be seen barreling down Montecito’s narrow country roads day and night, ferrying up to 5,000 gallons of H20 to some of the world’s richest and thirstiest folks.

 

 

As California trudges into its third year of a statewide drought—currently at an alarming Stage 4 level, denoting what the federal government calls “exceptional drought” conditionsfew towns have been as hard hit as Montecito.

But the plight of this unincorporated community offers ironies—and political lessonsthat are as rich as many of its 13,500 residents. The wealthiest ‘burb of Santa Barbara county, and indeed one of the wealthiest enclaves in the United States, Montecito is home to Google’s Eric Schmidt, Warren Buffett’s partner Charlie Munger, entertainment mogul Tom Freston, director Ivan Reitman, and stars Ellen DeGeneres, Dennis Miller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Rob Lowe with George Lucas and Kevin Costner owning adjacent beachfront homes. Or, as one local realtor puts it, “just about everyone in the industry.”

Though gifted with green hills and splendid ocean views, Montecito has the geologic misfortune to have been built on land with precious little water—indeed, less water than any other part of the central coast of California. An aquifer runs nine miles under southern Santa Barbara County, but only a tiny sliver extends into Montecito.

Last November, Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, warned that without drastic and immediate conservation—a 30 percent use reduction by all—the town would be plum out of water.

And then things got worse. In January, there was no rain. In February, Mosby announced that Montecito would begin rationing water. Part of the moratorium: a stop to the building of new homes—and heavens!— no new swimming pools. Residents with existing pools or spas were forbidden to empty and refill them with town water.

For the most part, residents have embraced the restrictions, allowing Montecito to cut its water usage by 48 percent and leaving vast aprons of yellowed lawns as evidence. A second five-acre property owned by Oprah—across the street from her estate—has gone to seed. Though a former water hog, Oprah is no longer. “She is the poster child for us,” gushed Mosby in an interview. “She’s doing her part.”

Some folks, however, seem not to have gotten the message.

In May, 837 defiant—or careless—residents coughed up $532,000 in penalties, or a collective overage of about 13 million gallons of town water. The beachfront Biltmore Four Seasons was whacked with a penalty of $48,000 for using about one million gallons over its allotment in April, while a nearby private home sucked up a $30,000 fine for the month for guzzling an extra 750,000 gallons. The district receives about 30 appeals a week. Those who do not pay their bills receive shut off notices— and about 400 were sent out in the last year. The Montecito Water District, which is particularly discreet about its patrons, admits it will rake in close to $4 million in fines this year.
 

Ty Warner, the Beanie Babies tycoon and owner of the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and the San Ysidro Ranch (where John F. Kennedy and Jackie were married), and whose private residence is a stunning six acres facing the Pacific) is a perennial on the water district’s top-ten users list. According to public documents, the biggest residential user for 2012-13 was Pat Nesbitt—CEO of Windsor Capital, majority owner of Embassy Suites—who has long sought to convince local officials that his polo field, which is part of his 20 acre estate, is entitled to a discounted agricultural water rate. And he’s sued the Montecito Water District—twice, according to the water district’s attorney—to make his case.

Some simply find a way around the restrictions. Bob Hazard, a retired hotel CEO who writes a news column for the Montecito Journal, says he would not be surprised if some of the town’s wealthiest are “paying as much as $15,000 a month for trucked-in water.”

Certainly, Montecito has more than its share of water hogs. The top three users for Montecito in 2012/13 guzzled close to 30 million gallons alone. “That’s enough water to provide the needs of a small town,” says Mosby. And this, during a drought has been unrelenting for almost three years, afflicting the state from Sacramento to San Diego.

So how did the nation’s most populous state, the world’s 8th largest economy, get itself into such a mess?

The saga begins with the fact that much of California is a desert or semi-desert. The only outside source for the state comes from the Colorado River, a siphon created in the 1920s that has long embittered other Western states. Irrigating a desert is no small feat and has prompted all manner of chicanery and backroom deals, as immortalized in the film Chinatown.

Nor does it help that the state is burdened by a chaotic system of 440 water districts or agencies. The county of Santa Barbara, population 250,000, has 12 water boards. Compare that to New York City, population 8.5 million, which has one. Hence, any proposed water solutions or legislation in California can devolve into fractious bickering from competing interests.

Matters for Santa Barbara took a very pricey turn in the 1990s. In 1991, during another difficult drought, the county’s voters were persuaded to participate in the State Water Project – a statewide aqueduct system that was billed as a permanent remedy for droughts. Voters believed that the pipeline, which was designed to ferry water 144 miles from Kern County to Santa Barbara, would cost $270 million but the total bill, including interest through 2035, is $1.76 billion, according to the Central Coast Water Authority. This year, however, when water was critically needed, it arrived by the teaspoon. In January, the Department of Water Resources announced that there would be zero water from the state water project for the entire state. Never mind that Santa Barbara had already paid its $60 million for its 2014 annual share.

Journalist and author Ann Louise Bardach has lived in Santa Barbara since 1989. She is the author of Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential.


 

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