Montecito Neighbors Magazine

By Sarah Ettman-Sterner

Thanksgiving is coming and as we enter into the 2019 holiday season, Montecito residents have much for which to be grateful. There is beauty all around us; clear blue skies, pleasant weather that’s the envy of the world, and colorful native plants, many of which bloom in the fall and winter. Thanks to last year’s abundance of rain, Jameson Lake, tucked away high in our backcountry, is nearly full. This is something we can't take for granted after years of the rigors of drought and diligent community conservation. Working quietly behind the scenes to ensure we have access to this life-giving force 365 days a year, the “Montecito Water District (MWD) strives to provide an adequate and reliable supply of high quality water to the residents of Montecito and Summerland, at the most reasonable cost. In carrying out this mission, the District places particular emphasis on providing outstanding customer service, conducting its operations in an environmentally sensitive manner, and working cooperatively with other agencies.”

Let’s take a “deep dive” and learn about the delivery systems and people behind the scenes at MWD that ensure that there is high quality water at the ready when we turn on the tap. You might be surprised to learn that the District was founded nearly 100 years ago and we can appreciate the foresight of those involved in its early days. For its size, Montecito Water District has remarkable facilities. Construction began on the Jameson Lake-Juncal Dam-Doulton Tunnel project in 1921, the same year the District was established. Completed in 1930, this system is so well constructed it inspires the awe of engineers to this day. Surrounded by Los Padres National Forest, Juncal Dam forms Jameson Lake, which currently has a surface area of about 125 acres and holds more than 5,000 acre feet of water when full. Doulton Tunnel is a 2.2-mile long tunnel that carries water from Jameson Lake through the Santa Ynez Mountains to the District's Bella Vista treatment plant. Here the water is treated and then delivered through the District's distribution system. While the District also relies on groundwater wells, Jameson Lake and Doulton Tunnel were Montecito’s primary supply of water for decades, until the construction of the Cachuma Project in the 1950s. In 1991, State Water Project deliveries began into Lake Cachuma, which added water from Northern California to our supply. If you look at the historic timeline, approximately every 30 years a major new source has been added to address changing water supply conditions.

After nearly a century, Montecito’s well-constructed water delivery infrastructure continues to provide a mainstay of our supply when we have rain as we did last winter. This is due to the small but dedicated MWD team. General Manager Nick Turner oversees District operations which focus on Engineering, Treatment, and Distribution - all in support of serving water to customers. Currently his days are as full as Jameson Lake itself! There is a tremendous amount involved: securing the water supply, managing different sources for maximum benefit, treating the water to meet or exceed state and federal water quality standards, maintaining the distribution system, servicing the connections that provide water to each and every customer, and serving the customers themselves.

Fortunately, Turner has some seasoned, all-star players that make for a winning team. For example, Daniel “Danny” Rodriguez, who leads the distribution crew, has been with the District for 36 years and is an invaluable resource. According to Turner “We are extremely fortunate to have Danny’s knowledge and dedication. Danny puts a large emphasis on teamwork and accomplishes an amazing amount with unwavering support from loyal individuals who take pride in their work.” The distribution team responds to water main breaks across the District year-round. The majority of main breaks occur on 1920s era pipelines, reinforcing the need for an ongoing water main replacement program. Main breaks often appear as water running down a roadway and may be spotted by a resident or an employee. Leaks can be reported by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and MWD employees are on-call to make the needed repairs. Main breaks are most common during colder winter months and seem to have uncanny timing with Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. According to Danny, the team jokes that main breaks on holidays are a tradition, and when they sit down to a family meal they know the phone could ring at any time. Thanks to these local crews, typical response time on a main break is under 30 minutes and dedicated personnel keep the cost of repair low compared to hiring an outside contractor to perform the work.

We are still uncertain whether the gift of last year’s rain will reoccur in the upcoming season. As we look toward 2020, MWD is focused on planning for our long-term water needs, an on-going process with a variety of strategies. The District is working diligently to diversify its supplies so they are less rainfall dependent. Desalination and recycled water would enhance water supply reliability, reduce reliance on imported water supplies and make our water supply more resilient and less vulnerable to drought. For desalination, a 50-year water supply agreement guaranteeing annual water deliveries from the City of Santa Barbara has been negotiated and next steps include finalizing a draft contract, public comment, and approval by vote of governing boards, with completion targeted around March 2020. This would be a significant step towards acquiring local drought proof water supplies for the community. MWD is also moving forward with its Recycled Water Feasibility Plan, which includes serving large-scale irrigation users.

MWD is also implementing supply management strategies. Examples include resting District wells - not pumping - in order to preserve groundwater in storage and allow the basin to recharge while surface water supplies are flush, using water from Jameson Lake to make room for capturing additional runoff this coming winter, and storing surplus State Water Project water for use during future droughts.

Montecito residents play a huge role in protecting water resources through conservation practices. The positive relationship between the organization and its constituents continues to produce excellent, sustainable results in reducing water use. Through voluntary conservation, customers have kept usage at about 40% of pre-drought consumption—quite an accomplishment!  For those who admire our local flora, and like to garden, achieving water efficiency can also be fun!  Fall is a fabulous time to plant natives so they will get established over the winter and bloom next spring. It is also a great time of year to apply mulch, which can nourish plants and preserve moisture in the ground.

The District, a public agency governed by an elected board, encourages public participation, emphasizes customer communications and provides responsive, high quality service. In fact, in 2019, Montecito Water District received the District Transparency Certificate of Excellence from the Special District Leadership Foundation (SDLF). Only about 6% of the more than 2,000 special districts in the state of California hold this award, which recognizes outstanding efforts to promote transparency and good governance.

Laura Camp, MWD Public Information Officer, states that, "To better serve customers, MWD recently began accepting credit cards and implemented a robust online bill pay system with autopay options. Rates have not increased since 2016. A rate study is underway and is expected to be available for Board and public review this winter. Goals of the new rate setting pro­cess include eliminating the current water shortage emergency surcharge, and budgeting for new water sources such as desali­nation and recycled water. MWD's enews letter goes out about once a month, and customers can subscribe on the website, by emailing, or by calling 805.969.2271. We encourage phone calls, because we understand everyone's questions are different!"

Water is essential to our quality of life here in Montecito and beyond. As residents, we can take pride in our water stewardship  and, together with the hard work of MWD, all of us can give thanks for our daily delivery of this precious resource.