‘Stealth’ Water Demand Fuels Goleta Growth During Drought

Ban on New Hookups Doesn't Apply to Developers with Historical Credit, Water District Says

<strong>A DEAL’S A DEAL:</strong>   During a moratorium on new connections, the Goleta Water District confirmed service for UCSB’s 165-unit San Joaquin Apartments project, now under construction. UCSB can lay legal claim to half of the area’s unused “stealth demand,” based on a 1973 permit with the district and a later water agreement with the Bishop Ranch. Goleta also signed off on water service for more than 600 new private homes and apartments.

Paul Wellman

A DEAL’S A DEAL: During a moratorium on new connections, the Goleta Water District confirmed service for UCSB’s 165-unit San Joaquin Apartments project, now under construction. UCSB can lay legal claim to half of the area’s unused “stealth demand,” based on a 1973 permit with the district and a later water agreement with the Bishop Ranch. Goleta also signed off on water service for more than 600 new private homes and apartments.

It was a rare victory for Goleta’s beleaguered slow-growth movement when the California Highway Patrol dropped its plans this winter for a patrol station on Hollister Avenue, near the Ellwood School.

Hundreds of west Goleta residents opposed the project, and the Goleta Water District rejected its application for water service, citing a moratorium on new connections that went into effect on October 1, 2014.

“The water district had been quite firm, and I think that was a big obstacle,” said Robert Miller, an Ellwood newcomer who led the opposition. When the CHP withdrew, he said, “We were ecstatic.”

The CHP project, however, has been the exception and not the rule, as Goleta’s real estate boom continues virtually unchecked under a district-declared water shortage emergency. Records show that during the moratorium, as the district urges residents — among the thriftiest in the state — to further reduce their water use in the fifth year of a severe drought, it has signed off on water service for more than 600 future homes and apartments, 165 housing units at UCSB, and a dozen homeowner swimming pools, spas, and Jacuzzis.

According to district officials, the applicants for these projects have preexisting water entitlements dating from the 1980s to 1950s — a confusing patchwork of reclaimable meters, unused permits, outstanding “will serve” letters, and historical water service agreements — that exempt them from the moratorium. The district calls it “stealth demand.”

“It’s factored into our plan for future build-out,” said Ryan Drake, district water supply and conservation manager. “It’s not a new entitlement. It’s additional demand we’re obligated to serve and can’t cut off.”

Even in a severe drought? asks Donna Hone, who served on the district board for 10 years in the 1970s and '80s.

“They have absolutely run amok,” Hone said. “We have no water, and they are handing out will-serve letters like popcorn. They’re putting us in a huge deficit position. Where is the water coming from? It really is alarming.”

During the last water moratorium in the Goleta Valley, from 1972-1996, with a few voter-approved exceptions, the district halted new hookups and stopped processing applications.

“We declared an emergency, and there was no way we could lift the restrictions on new connections,” Hone said.

In the current drought, the only other South Coast water agency to declare a moratorium is the Montecito Water District. It has made one exception to a ban on new hookups now in its third year: The Miramar hotel developer was allowed to install new meters to comply with fire regulations.

In 1991, at the end of the last drought, Goleta Valley voters approved a ballot measure requiring their district to halt new water connections whenever it cut back its allocation from Lake Cachuma, the main water supply for the South Coast. The current moratorium was triggered when all South Coast water agencies agreed to a 55 percent cut, beginning October 1, 2014. By then, the lake was two-thirds empty.

During this moratorium, the district has placed a few projects on hold, including Kenwood Village, for 60 homes on Calle Real; and Ocean Meadows, for 60 homes on Whittier Drive. At the same time, it has confirmed water service based on historical credit for such projects as the Old Town Village (175 apartments and a community center near Hollister Avenue, approved by the city last fall); Willow Springs Heritage Ridge (360 apartments near Los Carneros Road, now under city review) and Shelby, (60 luxury homes on a former avocado orchard at Cathedral Oaks Road, also under city review).

Other applications accepted by the district during the moratorium include Paradiso and Tomate Canyon (nine luxury homes and guest houses at the end of Hollister Avenue, now under county review); the I.V. Mixed Use project (27 apartments, 15 hotel rooms. and 7,000 square feet of retail space at 928 Embarcadero del Norte in Isla Vista); and the San Joaquin Apartments (165 units of UCSB housing under construction on Storke Road).

In all, Drake said, 915 acre-feet of unused stealth demand is still outstanding in the valley. UCSB can lay claim to more than half of it through a 1973 permit with the district and a water agreement with the Bishop Ranch. Another 40 percent is pledged to two dozen landowners who, in the 1980s, were allowed to trade agricultural wells and private mutual water companies for guaranteed district allocations in what is now western Goleta. All of the wells failed.

“We find ourselves obligated by a variety of water agreements, or contracts, written over the 75-year history of the district,” said Goleta water board President Lauren Hanson. “Some of those are ones we certainly wouldn’t write today.”

Records show the district has accepted applications for more than 150 acre-feet of stealth demand — not much, Drake said, compared to 10,100 acre-feet that the district’s 87,000 customers are projected to use this year.

“It’s a negligible difference in terms of overall supply,” he said.

But tell that to residents who have drastically cut back on flushing, showering, laundering, and watering as the drought drags on and Cachuma is stuck below 15 percent capacity. Goleta Valley residents in February averaged 51 gallons per capita per day, well under the state average of 67 gallons.

“Developers get to make a nice profit while we sit here and watch our plants die and worry about taking a shower,” said Barbara Massey, a member of the Westside Goleta Coalition and Goodland Coalition, both slow-growth advocacy groups. “It’s really very discouraging. I don’t think the water district is doing as good a job as they should. There’s a real temptation among some people to say, ‘Why should I save water for them?’”

Last month, the City of Goleta reported that 16 projects have been approved or are under construction, largely in western Goleta, for a total of two new hotels, one assisted living facility, 1,101 homes and apartments, and 452,500 square feet of commercial space. An additional 500 residential units and 195,000 square feet of commercial space are under review. That’s in addition to 200 homes that were built in Goleta last year.

Goleta “The Good Land” is fast becoming Goleta “The Crowded Land,” residents say.

“This is a semi-arid area and can’t support all of this population,” said Bob Harris, a long-timer who wistfully recalls when “there was still some countryside here.”

“The drought took out my grass — it’s just a mish-mash of weeds,” he said. “They have the audacity to tell everyone to conserve, yet they go right on building.”

Drake and Hanson say the building boom is out of the district’s hands.

“We’re not the growth agency, we’re the water agency,” Drake said. “We don’t approve the projects.”

Yet in September 2013, when Cachuma was half empty and other South Coast agencies favored an across-the-board cut in allocations, the Goleta Water District said no, effectively delaying its moratorium for a year. The district said it was protecting its customers’ pocketbooks: Cachuma is its cheapest water source. But the decision also spurred a rush on water service applications — 21 in all — as the lake level continued to drop. The district collected $2.6 million in new water supply charges from these applicants in 2014, right up to the October 1 deadline.

In the pre-moratorium rush, the district signed off on water service for such projects as the Village at Los Carneros (465 units of affordable housing under construction off Los Carneros), Cavaletto Tree Farm (134 homes under construction at 555 Las Perlas Drive), Mariposa at Ellwood Shores (assisted living for 90 seniors at 7760 Hollister, since approved by the city), and Cortona Apartments (176 affordable rentals at 6830 Cortona Drive, also approved by the city).

The water service for much of the recent development under construction, approved or under review in the City of Goleta, including the Village at Los Carneros, Cortona Apartments, Old Town Village, Cavaletto Tree Farm, and Willow Springs Heritage Ridge, is based on the old well exchanges. The wells still are not in use today: The water quality is poor.

In the late 1980s, Citizens for Goleta Valley, a slow-growth advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against some of the well owners, and lost. An appeals court ruled in 1991 that “whether the District ultimately ‘got the short end of the stick’ from their bargain is irrelevant to the issue of legality of the Agreements at the time they were executed.”

Said Drake, “People have suggested that we could choose not to honor these agreements. That would be a foolish choice.”

But Russell Ruiz, the district general counsel from 1991-2007, believes there were other options.

“They could have said they wouldn’t activate any new meters until the drought is over,” he said. “They could have stopped all the building at UCSB, too. We have all this massive construction going on, and we are running out of water.”

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