SANTA BARBARA (CN) – When a lake was discovered under the Slippery Rock Ranch near Santa Barbara three years ago, the owners quickly realized the aquifer was more precious than the avocado trees above it – and it had a wealthy neighbor willing to pay for it.
But with California in the throes of its worst drought on record, the Goleta Water District took exception to ranch owners pumping water from Goleta and selling it to the town of Montecito. And when the district filed suit seeking an injunction in February, a water war was on.
“We’re not rolling the dice here in Goleta and hoping it will rain,” said John McInnes, general manager of the Goleta Water District, who said Goleta residents don’t want water leaving their community.
“This is their water, and they’ve invested millions and millions of dollars in the basin. That was all done so in this time of drought that water would be available to them.”
But the Slippery Rock owners – including the man who created the “Law & Order” TV series – say they can do what they please with the water because it’s not connected to Goleta’s water supply.
“We did a fairly extensive hydrogeologic study,” said attorney Steve Amerikaner, who plans to file a response to the lawsuit at the end of the month.
More than a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown asked Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent in his Emergency Drought Proclamation. Now the state is in its fourth year of drought, and some communities, like Montecito, have enacted mandatory water restrictions.
When owners of the Slippery Rock Ranch discovered it had 200,000 acre-feet of water underneath its trees in the Goleta foothills, they realized they had a body of water as big as nearby Lake Cachuma, one of Goleta’s water sources.
Knowing nearby communities could use the water, Amerikaner said, the owners offered to sell it to four water districts in Santa Barbara County. Two were interested, Amerikaner said — Goleta and Montecito. When talks with Goleta broke down, he said, that left Santa Barbara’s southern neighbor.
“Montecito was both interested and reasonable in what they were expecting,” he said.
Montecito, a small community of 8,900, is one of the nation’s wealthiest, with residents who have included Oprah Winfrey, George Lucas, Steve Martin, Drew Barrymore and Jeff Bridges.
The 1906 mansion used in the movie “Scarface” is on the market in Montecito for $35 million. A website lists an Italian-style villa for rent at $3,500 a night, noting: “There’s plenty of room on the polo field for your helicopter should you need a place to park it.”
One of Slippery Rock’s owners, Dick Wolf, also lives in Montecito, Amerikaner confirmed. Wolf is an Emmy-winning TV writer and producer, who wrote for “Hill Street Blues” and produced “Miami Vice” before creating the massively popular “Law & Order” series.
Being a Montecito resident, Wolf is keenly aware of the bleak water situation, according to the Montecito Water District’s website.
“Unlike other local communities, Montecito does not have a robust groundwater basin,” the site states. “With few wells, we are almost completely reliant on surface water supplies. Therefore, we are actively pursuing all leads on supplemental water supplies, including desalination.”
Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, could not be reached by phone or email. But in late January, he and two directors spoke to the Goleta district’s board of directors during the public comment section, according to the Noozhawk news site.
“We implore you to work with us to find a solution to our common money and water problems,” director Richard Shaikewitz told the board.
He was referring to an offer made by Wolf and his partners to sell roughly 2,000 acre-feet of water to Montecito per year.
An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre 1 foot deep.
“The water we’re talking about extracting is sustainable, meaning it will be replenished by rainfall,” Amerikaner said.
But McInnes said there’s a problem: the lake under Slippery Rock Ranch connects to Goleta’s basin, known as “The Chalice.”
“It’s a bedrock formation that’s immediately adjacent to and above” the Goleta basin, McInnes said. “Unless the laws of gravity don’t exist, that water flows downhill.”
Therefore, he said, any water taken from the Slippery Rock Ranch is taken from the Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara.
“That could throw the basin into a significant imbalance,” McInnes said.
Goleta has worked hard to conserve water, McInnes said. Meanwhile, Montecito’s wealthy are known to lavish their lawns.
Goleta residents use roughly 60 gallons of water per person per day, McInnes said, compared to 300 gallons per day used by residents of Montecito.
“Even with all of that, it’s not enough to contend with the four driest years in the history of California.”
Right now, he said, residents are drawing roughly 5,000 acre-feet of water from the Chalice each year and 14,000 acre-feet from all its water sources.
Supply is at about 70 percent of their normal demand.
As the Slippery Rock owners prepared to sell their water, Goleta Water District filed suit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court Feb. 13, seeking an injunction to stop it.
According to the lawsuit, filed by attorney Frederic Fudacz, a 1989 case, referred to as the Wright Judgment, grants the water district rights to extract water from the basin and requires it to submit annual water management plans to the court to bring the basin into hydrologic balance.
The Slippery Rock water is connected to the basin, so selling water from the ranch would cause “irreparable injury” to plaintiffs and its customers, according to the lawsuit.
“The harm caused by defendants’ unauthorized water appropriation for private profit is magnified by prolonged drought conditions, and the critical need of this water for use by plaintiff Water District for the regional benefit of 87,000 residents,” the complaint states.
Amerikaner said California’s rules for extracting groundwater are complicated. But he said if Slippery Rock is not connected to the basin, the Wright Judgment does not apply, and underground water is no different than oil found under private land.
“The owner of the land has rights to the water,” Amerikaner said.
With the West suffering a multiyear drought, lawsuits over water rights have intensified.
Ranchers in Texas have sued the state, challenging its right to make them join a water conservation district.
In California , litigation is likely over a $25 billion plan to send water from the Sacramento-Bay Delta southward through two giant tunnels. Environmentalists this month told lawmakers that corruption in regulatory agencies threatens the water supply with contamination from fracking .
Farmers in western Nevada sued the state for ordering them to cut their groundwater pumping by half.
And states throughout the West continue to fight over rights to river water , which has been over-apportioned virtually everywhere, particularly the Colorado River.
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