Wiehl of Justice, Lis Wiehl
Editor’s note: Santa Barbara resident Lis Wiehl is a legal analyst and a New York Times bestselling author of nonfiction and fiction books. Her weekly two-part column, “Wiehl of Justice,” debuts exclusively today in the News-Press. Each Sunday in Voices, Ms. Wiehl will discuss a legal case. Then in Monday’s News-Press, she will present the ruling she would give, if she were the judge in the case.
Just two weeks into home ownership in Santa Barbara, I awakened to the sound of what I thought were sprinklers.
But the sound was actually a main water pipe bursting. I hurried off to cut off the water supply.
As I watched the liquid gold flowing down my property and onto the street, I thought of the pending lawsuit between our local water districts and Santa Barbara County.
The lawsuit may have a big impact on how water rights are managed and administered in the entire county.
I’ve analyzed the pending case as if I were the judge writing a decision. As a judge, I (first) identify the issues; then, (second), I outline the arguments on both sides and (third), I offer a decision in the form of a ruling.
Our local water districts — including Montecito, Goleta, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Buellton, Guadalupe, Carpinteria and Santa Ynez — are suing Santa Barbara County over who has the right to control state water purchases and sales.
It’s a battle that pits our local water districts against a county bent on providing oversight to district administration. The county holds the primary State Water Contract with the state of California. But the county takes on no financial responsibility for providing or distributing the water to consumers.
The districts, not the county, pay for all the water obtained under the State Water Contract.
According to Ray Stokes, spokesperson for the districts collectively known as the Central Coast Water Authority, “The county has no right to make administrative decisions over water management at the local level.”
Mr. Stokes added, “The districts take on all the responsibility for providing water to consumers, and the county’s added administration gets in the way of good water management.”
The ability to sell water out of the county is one of the main sticking points for the districts.
“We’re not trying to sell water rights out of the county during a drought. But we do want to have the right to make out-of-county contracts to sell water when we have a surplus,” Mr. Stokes said.
The districts are claiming that the county overstepped its authority and breached its contract by imposing restrictions on the districts’ ability to buy and sell water.
The county’s formal reply to the districts’ lawsuit is due Wednesday, but it has already taken the position that because it holds the contract with the state, it has the obligation to provide oversight (with restrictions) to the local districts.
Rachel Van Mullen, counsel for the county, said she believes the county’s stance to be “both lawful and in the long-term interest of all Santa Barbara residents.”
Ms. Van Mullen added another wrinkle to the issue by saying that although the districts assert that the county has no financial responsibility for State Water Project water, “the Water Supply Contract with the State of California actually still requires (the County) to levy a tax or assessment if needed to cover any payments outstanding under the Water Supply Contract. We take that responsibility seriously.”
So the issue comes down to a contractual dispute.
The districts’ position is that the county is overstepping its contractual rights because they, not the county, bear all the financial responsibility for providing water.
The county, in turn, takes the position that because it holds the contract with the state, it has the ultimate responsibility for how the districts manage water. And that authority extends to whether and how the districts can enter into contracts to sell water out of county.
The county, according to Ms. Van Mullen, wishes to impose “principles that would help State Water Project water balance water needs within Santa Barbara county, including through a “right of first refusal” for in-County water agencies at a reasonable cost before any State Water project water is sold or transferred outside of Santa Barbara County.”
The CCWA’s fundamental argument boils down to saying that because the districts bear all the financial responsibility for providing water, they should not be burdened with certain oversight and restrictions by the county.
They argue that the county’s arbitrary restriction on the sale of water contracts out of county will harm consumers because the districts won’t be able to make real time decisions on crucial water matters.
“We should have the right to make out of state contracts for our water when it would otherwise be wasted in times of surplus,” said Ray Stokes. “Not having that local decision making power is harmful to consumers because opportunities are wasted.”
Santa Barbara County argues that because it holds the primary water contract with the state, and because it has the power to levy taxes in the event of a default by the water districts, it also has the right of oversight on those districts which manage the water distribution.
If the districts default on payments to the state, it is the county that would have to step in and levy taxes in order to bail the districts out, according to the county’s counsel, Rachel Van Mullen.
The districts counter that argument by saying they have never been, nor plan ever to be, in default with the state.
Now that you’ve got the issues, and the arguments well in mind, stay tuned to tomorrow’s column when I render my ruling.