“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”
This ages-old adage — which many attribute to Mark Twain, even though it’s never been proven to be said by the author — is typically used to describe how the Western world views water.
Santa Barbara County’s 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart told the News-Press that “unfortunately,” the phrase “still rings true today.”
The county leader referenced the so-called Twain quote in light of the lawsuit the county now faces from eight county water districts. They are alleging that Supervisor Hart and his board are unlawfully inserting themselves into the decision-making process of how to manage state water supplies.
The lawsuit was announced Monday.
The suit — filed on behalf of the Central Coast Water Authority, which is made up of the cities of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Buellton and Guadalupe, along with the water districts including Montecito, Carpinteria, Goleta and Santa Ynez (which contracts a portion of its State Water Project supply to Solvang) — argues that because the county does not deliver state water or pay any portion of it, it cannot interfere with purchases or sales under the State Water Contract.
However, according to Supervisor Hart, the county holds the contract for the CCWA, and “the County of Santa Barbara holds the State Water Contract with the state of California.”
“The state of California recognizes the important role the county holds in representing the regional interests of all county residents that the cumulative self-interest of the individual water districts in the county does not represent,” Supervisor Hart told the News-Press.
The reason behind the lawsuit, according to CCWA, was because when the water agency asked the board to buy and sell water for what the market would bear (state Amendment 21), the county approved it with a sense of urgency considering the drought, but imposed new conditions on the sale and exchange of state water.
The conditions were imposed by the county, the Board of Supervisors argued, to protect regional water supply by requiring local water sales to be prioritized to in-county purveyors first to solve any regional supply imbalances. Then if nobody takes up those offers, any out-of-county sales or exchanges must meet a certain criteria and be approved by the board.
Furthermore, the board also required in its conditions that each out-of-county sale and transfer be approved by the Flood Control District director, which the water agency argued would take more time and risk losing water.
The CCWA argued that those conditions hamper their ability to make water transactions and put the county at a disadvantage, as it is the only one of 27 state water contract members that will operate this way.
Supervisor Hart said of Amendment 21 itself, “Recognizing the recent drought conditions and the serious threat that future droughts pose, the County of Santa Barbara worked collaboratively, in good faith with the CCWA and its member water agencies, and voted unanimously to approve the state water amendments that CCWA requested to allow the purchase of additional supplies to meet our county’s water needs.”
He then said of the board’s conditions, “The Board of Supervisors took action to maximize our entire county’s water supply and will require a critical look at any sale of our local water outside the county. This action ensures the water needs of county residents remain our highest priority.”