Columnist gives her opinion on how she would ruled
Wiehl of Justice, Lis Wiehl
Editor’s note: Lis Wiehl is a bestselling author, legal analyst and Santa Barbara resident. This is part 2 of her column about water districts suing Santa Barbara County. Part 1 appeared in Sunday’s News-Press.
Local water districts are suing Santa Barbara County, claiming that they should not be subject to restrictions over certain water sales and purchases.
The districts claim that the county doesn’t deliver or pay for any water and therefore shouldn’t be able to dictate terms to them. The districts argue that the county’s imposition of restrictions ultimately hurts consumers.
In response, the county claims that the oversight is needed to maximize the entire water supply for all consumers. While the county doesn’t supply or pay for water, it does have a contract with the state of California for water management.
And the county is ultimately on the hook under that contract with the state if a district defaults on its obligations. The county has the ability to levy taxes in the event a district defaults on payments to the state.
The districts are not planning to enter into out-of-county contracts during our present drought, but they want the ability to enter into agreements according to their own management objectives.
So while the county holds a contract with the state for water management, it is the districts that actually carry out the financial obligations under that contract.
And it is the county that is responsible for picking up the tab if a district can’t pay its water bill.
Here’s how I would rule on the case if I were the judge.
The districts are clearly fed up with what they perceive as overbearing and obstructionist oversight by the county. They make a point. The districts have assumed all financial responsibility — and headaches — for providing water to their local consumers.
As Tim Gorham, geologist and board member of a mutual water company in Santa Ynez, said, “The districts are jostling for position over a diminishing resource. But without state regulation (over water) it would be a first-come, first-serve system battle over wallets. Whoever has more money to drill water, will get more water.”
So why should the county be allowed to constrict local water districts from making their own decisions related to water management?
The short answer: It is the county that holds the Water State Contract with the state of California, and it is the county that has the capacity to levy taxes in the event a district defaults on its obligations. (The districts say that a default has never happened and won’t in the future, so the county’s bail-out responsibilities are theoretical only.)
I’m not on the side of more regulations and needless oversight, but I do know that judges will give priority to the standing contract the county has with the state. The districts would like to have that contract assigned to them, but for now the county holds the contract.
I hate to throw cold water on the districts’ position, but unless the districts can show that the county is acting arbitrarily and capriciously, judges will enforce an existing contract.
I don’t think the districts have shown that the county has yet acted arbitrarily or capriciously.
So the restrictions on out-of-county sales are reasonable considering that the county does bear the burden — even theoretically — of saving a district from defaulting on its obligations.
Before rendering a ruling in favor of the county, I’d suggest the parties mediate to see if they can come to a mutually acceptable resolution. Both sides are spending tax dollars on legal fees and court proceedings, and no one wins when legal fees mount and the issues are tied up in litigation for years. (For my part, I’m just hoping that I won’t be awakened again by an “Old Faithful” main water pipe break at my house, which I mentioned in Sunday’s column.)
With water being such a precious and expensive resource in our region, we’ll all be better served if the districts and county can come to a quick resolution on these issues and focus on the job of supplying our water.