On The Waterfront: Successfully Creating a Pathway Through the Drought

Everyone knows this drought has been bad, but the numbers are astonishing: four straight years of rainfall in Montecito averaging only about half of normal; the lowest four year total recorded by the District since records began in 1930; less than 16% of available water supply in both Jameson Lake and Lake Cachuma with no Cachuma Project water allocation in 2015 for the first time in its history; and possibly no State Water allocations in 2016 or supplemental water supply purchase opportunities.

Despite continuing drought, and the lack of water from local and state water project reservoirs, Montecito has managed to secure water that should cover customer water demand into 2017 even if the drought continues.

How? By being the first south coast water district to adopt a monthly customer water allocation program in 2014, resulting in a cumulative 46% reduction in water demand compared to 2013. In addition, since 2012, the District has accumulated and brought over 8,000 acre feet of water to Lake Cachuma from banked and annual State Project supplies, and from extensive supplemental supply purchases.


In recognizing the severity of this drought, MWD has moved quickly to request the possible regional use of the soon to be reactivated City of Santa Barbara desalination facility. Both Montecito and Goleta originally participated in this facility; but in 1996 had to drop out because the Districts could not afford both that facility and the voter-approved State Water Project obligations.

It has become clear that desalination has become the best long-term local supply for Montecito. Last year, when Montecito first sought to reengage with the project, there were state regulatory issues that could have delayed Santa Barbara’s reactivation of the desalination facility and prevent Montecito from participating. Montecito helped clear the regulatory hurdles by meeting with numerous involved agencies: the Governor's office, Natural Resources Agency, California EPA, Coastal Commission, Regional Water Quality Control Board, and US Army Corps of Engineers. Regulatory approval was obtained, and the City Council unanimously voted to move forward. There is a target date to bring a draft agreement forward for City Council, District Board, and public review before the end of the year.


All Water Districts have high fixed costs for water treatment, conveyance and long term water supply commitments. MWD’s annual fixed costs account for about 70% of its annual budget. When droughts occur, district operating costs increase, not decrease due to the purchase of expensive supplemental water supplies, and to develop and support conservation and allocation programs. The success of customer conservation has resulted in a substantial decrease in revenues at the same times costs have increased. In addition, the District must maintain the full capability to meet any water need, including for emergencies like the recent Gibraltar fire.

The reality is that water now costs more virtually everywhere in the state. Looking forward, the District will be paying more for a local secure and reliable water supply such as the deliveries of desalinated water from the City’ regional facility. These costs are being determined now.

Once we know the costs of desalinated water and possibly other sources like ultra-deep well water, we still have to predict what our water sales will be. The cost of water at the time and amount of rain or drought will impact water demand and revenue. Further, due to the drought, many customers have started permanent or long-term conservation and will use less water. Others have acquired wells that will permanently decrease their need for outdoor water, and others have put in new drought tolerant landscaping or artificial grass.

The District is constantly analyzing its water supplies, demand and revenues. As the drought winds down and long-term demand and costs become clear, the Board will, as soon as possible, lower or remove allocations, penalties and the emergency surcharge. At the same time, the District will evaluate its finances and identify stable long-term water rates that are fair to customers and adequate to allow the District to provide a permanent, reliable water supply and quality service. As the drought resolves and we develop more information and prepare to make decisions about water demand, costs and rates, we will provide opportunities for our customers to be informed and provide input.