My board colleagues and I, working with the District's staff, protect our community’s precious water supply and maintain the quality of water service provided to everyone in the Goleta Valley. The District also maintains the overall lowest water rates of any public water agency on the South Coast.
Have a look at the photo in this section. It was taken in 2016, well into the most severe drought we’ve ever had. I'm standing on the boat launch ramp at Lake Cachuma, the South Coast’s primary water source, where the water level was falling lower and lower. And still had farther to fall.
It’s important to remember that time. It wasn’t so long ago.
That situation was enormously difficult and had an unknowable end date. There are echoes of that today, in this time of coronavirus and with the wildfires that have raged this fall across the West.
The District successfully navigated that epic drought. It seemed like one of the hardest things our community would ever experience. What the District achieved, and what was learned, will stand the Goleta Valley in good stead for disruptions of many kinds, including the uncertainties of today. And for the future droughts that are sure to come.
What were some of those actions? For one, the District rehabilitated its well field in the Goleta Valley. These wells had been little used by past administrations at the District; they had been considered capable of incidental use only. Readying them to pinch hit for Lake Cachuma was not easy and brought new, continuing costs.
The District made that herculean effort at the board’s direction. Because of that action, the District was able to rely on those wells and the drought buffer we’d stored in the groundwater basin for enough indoor water to get us through the drought. And it prepared us for any future crises affecting Cachuma or other water sources. No other generation in the District’s 75-year history had ever attempted that enormous re-purposing of the well field. It was a vital decision. And it was accomplished through grit and focus and the operating and engineering excellence of District staff.
Additionally, the District used its in-house water management planning tools to make smart decisions on how to deploy other limited water sources most effectively. And conservation incentives that were put in place for every customer category helped the Goleta Valley to be one of the water-thriftiest communities in California, which was also incredibly important.
The massive wildfires of recent years have also challenged South Coast water supplies. How would fires do that? In short, by burning through 70% or more of the watershed that feeds into Cachuma.
Rains bring needed creek flows but also large amounts of organic debris from the burn areas. That increased debris load is expected to continue, possibly for years.
The District quickly took the lead in getting regional cooperation for heightened water quality testing. I am the District’s representative to the Cachuma Operation & Maintenance Board, where I brought forward that effort. District staff’s own studies have yielded cost-effective plans to maintain water quality at the District’s water treatment plant in the Goleta foothills and throughout the water distribution system.
In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the District took immediate steps to maintain a safe environment for employees and the public. Expanded online services are temporarily replacing in-person customer service. Many staffers are able to work from home. Operations crews follow new protocols on projects, with different ways to work together safely, and new protective gear. Board meetings are being held by tele-conference, which all members of the public are welcome to attend, safely, from home. And, as it has done throughout my time on the board, the District continues to offer assistance to any customers having trouble with their bills.
Although it seems long, this is a much abbreviated description of the District’s responses to extraordinary challenges. Keep in mind that the regular daily operation of the largest water district on the South Coast is itself a complex task, done 24/7 by District staff.
The District runs a lean operation. Compared with other South Coast water agencies, it staffs with the fewest employees per thousands of community members. Salaries remain well within area norms and personnel costs have fallen as a part of the annual budget.
There are many costs the District does not have direct control over. Water is the most significant of these. Water costs from Lake Cachuma are set by the federal government, which owns the lake. Those costs go up. State Water Project costs are set by the State of California. Those costs go up, too. Because our community voted decades ago to participate in the State Water Project, the District pays millions of dollars a year to be part of that water system. That turned out to be one of our important resources during the drought.
As we all experience, costs for just about every necessary thing go up. The District, every five years, adjusts water rates to reflect that reality. There’s no profit being made, as some have mistakenly thought; the District is a governmental entity.
The District does an evaluation of the most urgently needed infrastructure work, to maintain the integrity of the treatment and distribution system. It must also budget for any and all projects required to meet new state and federal requirements. I can attest that these are No Frills budgets, looked at by a board that wants nothing extra in there. The District apportions those costs across its customer categories according to their use patterns.
This year was a very difficult time to have to review, and raise, rates. That’s one reason why I have made a point to reach out to customers so that they know the District will work with anyone having financial difficulties.
The proposed rates set a ceiling for increases over the next five years. My hope is that when a refinancing opportunity on District bonds comes up in 2023, the board will take that opportunity to restructure District borrowing and be able to lessen any rate increases.
With regard to rates, it is very important to remember this: in my time in office, the District has remained able to consistently offer the lowest water rates on the South Coast to virtually ever category of customer, including the water-thriftiest residential customers and our local farmers.
Making decisions to approve vital projects, evaluating the District’s path forward, directing limited funds to the most critical needs—-these are the votes the District board has taken, to maintain the quality of service the community expects. Board members don’t always agree on every decision. But our job is to make our best votes as we see them. It is not easy work, and there’s a steep learning curve.
In this time of challenges, experience and knowledge of the issues are key to serving our community well.