Historically, Montecito’s large lots and estate style homes have consumed the majority of the region’s water supply. This has made Montecitans one of the highest per capita water consumers in California. Despite having cut total water consumption in half between 2013 and 2017, the district’s residents continue to use over 200 gallons of water per person per day with an estimated 85% of this consumption going toward irrigation (Burns 2019). And that’s just what we can measure.
While only about 5% of the district’s water needs come from groundwater during a year of normal rainfall, this can jump to close to 15% during a drought year (Michael Baker International 2017). Since the onset of the statewide drought in 2011, the water district began levying drought surcharge fees for the water it provided to its customers. While these fees were added to cover the additional water that needed to be bought in from the state water project, it also caused an unexpected shift in private well creation (Burns 2019).
As the district’s average water bill increased toward the current average of approximately $239/month, a boom of private well drilling began to avoid these fees altogether. It is now estimated that there are over 1,500 private wells tying into the Montecito Aquifer, a 300% increase from pre-drought levels (Brugger 2017). This boost in well creation has been motivated largely by wealthy property owners seeking to elude heavy district penalties for overwatering and use it for landscaping purposes (Burns 2019).
Only recently has Santa Barbara County attempted to monitor this well activity. It was not until 2017 that property owners were even required to obtain a permit for well drilling. Under this law, all new wells must have meters installed to record the amount of water pumped. However, these meters only measure flow and do not place any restrictions on water extracted (Brugger 2017). In the meantime, groundwater levels continue to drop and Montecito residents still pay the drought surcharge fees to cover the increasing amount of water purchased from other sources (Michael Baker International, 2017).
To continue sourcing water at current levels, the Montecito Water District has agreed to purchase an additional 1,430 acre feet of water (approximately 30 percent of its yearly demand) for $4.3 million dollars every year from Santa Barbara City’s desalination plant. They are also debating some significant rate increases, potentially raising the cost of water as much as 50% over the next 5 years, driving the average monthly water bill to $375 (Burns 2019). Looking forward, the Montecito Water District does not currently have the ability to assess the future of its water supply without complete information on the amount of water being pumped from private wells. This all begs the question how much water do we need and how much access should private wells have to it?
Brugger, Kelsey (July 20, 2017). Well Shamers Prevail: County Imposes Discretionary Review for All Water Well Permits. Santa Barbara Independent.
Burns, Melinda (October 24, 2019). Montecito Thirsting for New Water Source. Santa Barbara Indpendent.
Michael Baker International (2017). Urban Water Management Plan 2015 Update. Montecito Water District.