Questions about financial liability and concerns over weighted votes among member agencies of the Central Coast Water Authority prompted the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to take no action on transferring the state water contract to that joint-powers agency.
Sitting as the board of directors for the Water Agency and the Flood Control and Water Conservation District, supervisors unanimously directed staff to continue discussions on the CCWA’s request to assume the state water contract.
If the board members’ concerns can be alleviated, directors could still vote to assign the contract with the California Department of Water Resources to the CCWA, which has eight member agencies.
At the same time, the board directed the staff to continue negotiations to renew the Water Agency’s Cachuma Project water contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and subcontracts with member units that are due to expire in 2021.
Part of the negotiations involve calculating a new safe yield for Cachuma Lake, with an allowance for periodic recalculation to account for changes in conditions resulting from sedimentation, an evolving climate, downstream water rights and maintenance of fisheries.
Water Agency directors found two main sticking points to reassigning the contract for state water deliveries to CCWA.
One is whether the agency — essentially the county — would be absolved of all financial responsibility, which could be critical for taxpayers, especially in areas that do not receive state water, if one or more of the CCWA members fails to meet its financial obligations to the Department of Water Resources.
CCWA has been trying to have the contract reassigned since it was formed in 1991, but the Department of Water Resources would not agree to the request because it was unclear if a joint-powers agency could levy a property tax if a member defaulted on financial obligations.
That was clarified in 2015 through an amendment to the state Government Code, and the Department of Water Resources recently indicated it was willing to reassign the contract to CCWA.
But Water Agency directors are still leery about whether reassignment will relieve the agency’s financial liability.
“I want to make sure the DWR document really says we’re off the hook,” said 4th District Director Peter Adam. “I’m not sure it really releases us from our financial obligations. We have to make sure that’s really the case.”
County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni told the board that just assigning a contract does not necessarily secure a release of liability.
Carolee Krieger, president and executive director of the nonprofit California Water Impact Network, agreed that it’s not a certainty the county is off the hook on property tax payments.
“It’s like writing the DWR a blank check,” she said. “It’s wiser for taxpayers to keep control with the county.”
But Tobe Plough, vice president of the Montecito Water District, urged the board to approve the transfer.
“We think the CCWA, as purveyors, can best direct (state water’s) use,” he said.
The other sticking point is that the votes of the CCWA members are weighted based on how much state water their agencies are allocated.
Santa Maria has the largest allocation, so its vote represents 43 percent of the total, which is actually less than what it is entitled to based on its allocation.
The city agreed to take a lower percentage so it wouldn’t have a majority vote that would essentially override the rest of the members.
The second-highest weighted vote is wielded by the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District No. 1.
Together, Santa Maria and ID-1 hold the majority votes and can override the other agencies if they vote as a bloc.
“One person, one vote is important,” said 1st District Director Das Williams. “I don’t think we would be adequately representing the people … if we’re talking about giving CCWA all the authority the Water District has now. …
“It only takes two agencies to determine the direction for the whole county,” Williams said.
Third District Director Joan Hartmann also was concerned about the CCWA acting openly before the public.
“I think the County Board of Supervisors is the overarching entity that is open and transparent,” Hartmann said. “Some of the (CCWA) members are not transparent. … Water really is a public resource.”
Bill Rosen, a member of the Goleta Water District board of directors, said he voted against the contract reassignment because he felt it was bad public policy to transfer control to CCWA because the members are appointed, not elected.
He also said Santa Maria and ID-1 together control nearly 80 percent of the vote.
“Control of water policy is much too important to give to two appointed officials,” Rosen said.
Chris Dahlstrom, general manager of ID-1, expressed surprise over that assessment.
“I didn’t realize we had such a big stick,” Dahlstrom said, asking the board to allow the contract to be reassigned “to better represent ID-1’s customers.”
Second District Director Gregg Hart said although he was previously against reassigning the contract, he now sees the issue differently.
“I’m open to discussions and negotiations,” he said.
Fifth District Director and Board Chairman Steve Lavagnino said he wants to get county counsel’s opinion on the financial liability issue, but he hopes the board will continue to move forward on the request.
“When we talk about the voting structure, it’s not about population,” he said. “It’s about Santa Maria takes a hell of a lot of water.
“State water was a savior for us during the drought,” he added.