The five candidates running for the Goleta Water District board of directors talked about water-supply planning during Tuesday’s Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce forum.
The forum focused on local water-supply planning, Goleta Valley development projects during the drought, and expectations for the new Lake Cachuma contract with the Bureau of Reclamation, which determines how much water is allocated each year.
Hanson and Rosen have served on the water board since 2008, and Merrifield has been a member since 2012.
Blois is a former member of the Goleta City Council, the Goleta Water Board and the Goleta Union School District board of trustees, while Geis is the retired Santa Barbara County auditor-controller.
Blois said she is an experienced, qualified candidate and decided to run because she’s “old enough to know better but caring enough to try.”
Geis said the district needs a plan to get through the drought without cutting usage and jeopardizing the ag industry.
Hanson, Rosen and Merrifield said they have the knowledge to continue doing the district's work, and Hanson said they have made the district a “solid, stable and reliable provider” for the community.
All the candidates were asked about their plans for boosting the water district’s local supplies, and many of them support an expanded recycled water system, looking into storm-water capture, and keeping the high level of conservation among its customers.
The Goleta Sanitary District is producing three times as much recycled water as is being sold to customers, and it’s an expensive prospect to expand the purple-pipe system used to distribute it.
Trucking recycled water to customers is an alternative the district is currently using, including water sales to the neighboring Montecito Water District.
Geis said the district should consider desalination, but others disagreed.
Merrifield called it “hideously expensive,” and said it wasn’t the best option as a local water supply unless things get “bad enough.”
He and other candidates said the drought could be the “new normal” and that conversation is here to stay.
The district has tried to avoid banning all outdoor watering so far, Rosen noted, but health and safety are the top priorities for water use.
Major construction projects during the drought have been a sore subject for Goleta, with housing and hotel projects going up all over town as people are asked to cut back on their own water use.
A forum question spoke to this, asking how much development is still in the pipeline for Goleta and what the water commitment is.
Geis spoke first and said there was no accounting of it.
Hanson said the district has a 24-month rolling model of supply and demand, as well as a running tally of development projects by the city and the county. Monthly committee meetings discuss the list, she said.
The district’s moratorium on new water connections means that any projects under construction either had historical usage, or got approval before the moratorium went into effect, she said.
Merrifield put a number on it and said about 38 projects are being tracked by the district, about half of which have water entitlements.
If they don’t have one, the projects are “not going anywhere,” he said.
Rosen added to that, noting that the moratorium will stay in effect until the district’s Lake Cachuma allocation is back up to 100 percent.
This year, it is at zero percent, so the only water coming out of that lake and into Goleta is purchased water from other agencies, carryover water banked in past years, or State Water Project allocations.
Blois said the district should be more transparent about its information, including the total acre-feet of water committed to the new developments underway.
Lake Cachuma is a major water source for Goleta, and the contract to determine how much water can be pumped out of it is going to be renegotiated soon.
County officials expect the total allocation amount will be less in the future since the reservoir designed to last through seven years of drought lasted only four.
Hanson said the district needs to prepare supplemental local sources that are not reliant on Lake Cachuma, since it’s unknown what the allocation will be.
It’s expected to be reduced, and there will also be a new biological opinion governing water releases for federally endangered steelhead trout, she said.
Blois, who was on a water board during the last contract negotiation, said there’s “no telling what they’ll do.” She hopes for a reasonable allocation, she said.
Geis said federal officials will never let the lake drain again, and the district needs to consider all other sources of water in the future.
In response to a question about water rates and policies for agricultural customers, incumbent candidates said the district offers the lowest ag rates on the South Coast, even with the increased rates and drought surcharge, and its ag customers have the lowest rates of all the district’s customers.
The district tries to support the industry but can’t give out more water than is available, Rosen said.
Geis said the district needs a plan to give ag customers more water during a drought, not less.
Blois said it would help if reclaimed water could be used on crops, but that it may be an economic burden on farmers to change crops.
Goleta’s avocado and lemon orchards use a lot of water compared to other crops, Merrifield said.
The “sticky issue of crop choice” may need to be considered in the long run, he added.