Why All the Fuss at Montecito’s Water and Sanitary Districts?

Do Excitable Advertisements and Inflammatory Charges Hold Water?

Montecito uses 90 percent of its water on landscaping, as on this expansive lawn on Cold Springs Road.

Melinda Burns

Montecito uses 90 percent of its water on landscaping, as on this expansive lawn on Cold Springs Road.

You’ve got to hand it to Bobby Hazard. You might as well. He’d probably take it anyway. Bobby Hazard, known to his friends merely as “Bob” ​— ​and sometimes as “Robert” ​— is the former Best Western and Comfort Inn mogul now quietly asserting himself as The Am What Am (TAWA for short) running what passes for government in Montecito. More specifically, Hazard ​— ​a crusader/columnist/gadfly for the Montecito Journal ​— ​is the not-so-invisible hand orchestrating a total takeover of the Montecito Water District Board of Directors and a partial takeover of the Montecito Sanitary District by a new political cabal calling itself the Committee for Montecito Water Security. To date, this committee has raised north of $100,000 to achieve total hegemony over Montecito’s infrastructure of irrigation and defecation.

Naturally, I thought the whole thing smelled funny. The name, I admit, gave me the heebie-jeebies, the “water security” part especially. It injected an unseemly crypto-fascist glamor ​— ​lean, tight-muscled bodies packed into snug black polo shirts ​— ​to what should be an anonymously utilitarian enterprise. Their ads, I admit, seriously bug as well. Actually, they bug a whole lot. “Stop dumping 500,000 gallons per day of wastewater off our beach!” screamed one. Other ads castigated the sanitary district for dumping ​— ​it’s always “dumping” ​— “partially treated wastewater” into the ocean. The clear picture these words paint ​— ​despite all the duplicitously earnest choirboy protests by their painters ​— ​is of human feces floating ominously on the ocean’s surface just off Butterfly Beach.

I called and emailed Hazard, asking if he’d care to comment on his “quest for world domination.” I also included reference to my favorite ​— ​though totally unfounded ​— ​conspiracy theory. I suspect ​— ​but have yet to prove ​— ​that this is all part of a big plot hatched by, for, and of the Birnam Wood Golf Club “mafia” ​— ​of which Hazard (as former golf club president) is Cappo di Tutti Capi. The aim is to secure its members and their lush greens a reliable water supply by using treated, recycled wastewater produced by the sanitary district while picking the pockets of water district ratepayers to underwrite the expenses of what should be the private club’s private costs.

Some people connect dots that aren’t there. I may be one of them. Hazard let me know he thinks that’s definitely the case. In an email back, he dismissed my suggestion that he was some sort of “evil wizard” as “more tripe and twaddle.” Likewise, he dismissively tut-tutted an alternative conspiracy theory I hadn’t even mentioned ​— ​that the plan is to privatize the two public agencies ​— ​as “pure balderdash and poppycock.”

Had Hazard been in front of me, I would have hugged him. “Tripe and twaddle”!? “Balderdash and poppycock”?! I hadn’t heard invective like that since H.L. Mencken accused some contemptible soul of being both puerile and pusillanimous at the same time. Clearly, with syllables like that at his beck and call, Hazard should have won the Indy’s Best Of contest for Best Columnist this year. He wuz obviously robbed. But then, wuzn’t we all?

To state the obvious, no one but a card-carrying “evil genius” bent on world domination uses language like that anymore.

To also state the obvious, it’s unseemly to scare the shit out of voters. It is, however, extremely effective. Unlike Hazard, I don’t pretend to be a one-man grand jury. But having reported on more than a few water and sanitary districts, it’s my sense that Diane Gabriel and the Montecito Sanitary District run a pretty tight ship. To accuse her of “dumping” is inflammatory, prejudicial, and grossly inaccurate. So too is the term “partially treated.” Slate candidates insist they are merely highlighting the nuanced technical difference between secondary and tertiary treatment; Montecito has the former, and they’d prefer the latter. If I were Hazard, I might exclaim, “Fiddle-faddle and piffle!” Since I’m not, I’d merely suggest you look up the word “disingenuous” in the dictionary. Then look for Hazard’s picture next to it. For the record, I am told Montecito’s stream of treated wastewater is the cleanest ​— ​by far ​— ​of any sanitary district on the South Coast. Not only does Gabriel say so; so too does the Regional Water Quality Control Board. In fact, they issued an official fatwa to set the record straight. There are no floaties in the water off Butterfly Beach.

What’s especially odd in all this is that the “water security” slate and the sanitary district seem to want the exact same thing: to use recycled treated wastewater on golf courses and cemetery lawns. The sanitary district, in fact, is about to embark on a pilot project to do just this. The first step is to determine just how much reverse osmosis is needed to get the most cost-effective blend of treated, recycled wastewater that can be used to irrigate lawns and landscaping without adverse effect. In fact, the reverse osmosis trains, as they are called, are about to be shipped from Israel. They should arrive here shortly after the election. To date, the only agency objecting to the use of recycled water has been the Montecito Water District board, on which the slate already has two solid votes. After the election, it will have no fewer than four votes and possibly all five.

Recycled water makes a lot of sense. The water district should pursue it. But the sanitation district already is. So why attack it?

Up in Carmel ​— ​land of a million golf courses ​— ​recycled water is required for the links. But the golf courses have to pay the full cost of treatment and delivery. That’s expensive. If Montecito water customers could be tapped to help underwrite such costs, the pocketbook pain experienced by Birnam Wood would not be so great. That’s a theory, I admit, not a fact.

What’s it all mean? I don’t know yet. I just know something smells. And it’s not in the water.

[Update]

Poop War Postscript

A high-powered Sacramento law firm associated with the statewide Republican Party issued a sternly worded “cease and desist” order to Diane Gabriel and the Montecito Sanitary District from purchasing any more advertisements on the subject of “partially treated” wastewater being dumped into the ocean. The letter — from the firm Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk — said the advertisement was clearly intended to influence the outcome of the current election for the Montecito Sanitary District, thus violating state election codes barring the expenditure of public funds by any public agency on behalf of any candidates or ballot measures.

The ad in question — which appeared in last Sunday’s Santa Barbara News-Press — alludes only to misleading information in “news articles, political ads and mailers” but never mentions by name to the organization printing these mailers — the Montecito Committee for Water Security — or the names of the committee candidates now running for two seats on the sanitation Board of Directors.

The "water security" slate has attacked the sanitation district for not providing recycled, treated wastewater and for “dumping” 500,000 gallons of partially treated wastewater into the ocean a day. Sanitation district manager Diane Gabriel has objected that the term “partially treated” is both inaccurate and alarming to the public. “We want people to know their beaches are clean and the water is safe to swim in.” She has insisted that the treated wastewater — piped nearly 1,500 feet off the coast and released into the ocean 21 feet below the surface — is fully treated to secondary treatment standards.

The ad in question quoted officials with state water quality agencies and state sanitation agencies attesting that the treated water released by the Montecito district meets all state and federal standards. Gabriel has also released stats indicating that Montecito’s treated wastewater is the cleanest by far of all the south coast agencies that flush their treated waste water into the ocean.

“We can work with whoever gets elected,” Gabriel said. “This isn’t about politics. This is about our reputation as an agency. We need people to know we’re doing our job and that their beaches are safe.”

She said she referred the cease-and-desist letter to the district's attorney, Janet McGinnis, for review. The letter insists that Gabriel repay the district for any costs incurred by the ad out of her personal funds. The letter also suggested that the expenditure for the ad was probably approved by the two sanitation board incumbents whom the “water security” slate targeted for defeat: “This is, of course, highly improper and undoubtedly illegal.” The letter, signed by attorney Brian Hildreth, concluded, “My client is fully prepared to aggressively pursue your compliance with the law by court order or administrative action.”

Gabriel and the district had scheduled a series of open houses at the sanitary district for this weekend as part of an effort to reassure the public. Those open-house hours, she stated, would not be affected. “We do this all the time,” she stated. “This is just a different kind of poop we’re dealing with.”

The "water security" slate is fielding in total five candidates in this November’s race — three for the Montecito Water board and two for the Montecito Sanitary District board. They currently control two seats of the water board already. Slate candidates have suggested Montecito could better achieve water sustainability by harvesting the 500,000 gallons that are flushed into the ocean — after treatment — daily. To date, it’s been water board members who have balked at the use of recycled water on cemetery lawns and golf course greens, not the sanitary district, which is currently in the process of pursuing a pilot water-recycling project.