When it comes to local government and policy making, no issue is more contentious than water, specifically the management of local water resources.

That much was apparent at a recent Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting, at which the often-bitter divide between local water managers and county officials was very apparent.

Eight separate entities make up the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA), and those members want the county to relinquish the state water contract it holds, handing over decision-making responsibilities to the CCWA.

Both sides make valid points about such a transfer of authority. CCWA officials correctly point out that they and their individual customers pay the costs of state water, while the other side worries about the fiscal liabilities to the county of ceding authority, and the fact that the agencies in the CCWA are governed by appointees, not elected officials.

That last part is important, because appointees and elected officials are held to different standards when it comes to open meetings and public accountability. At least one of the CCWA’s participating water agencies has been accused of not being completely forthcoming with customers.

The first issue, the county’s financial responsibility even after it transfers authority to the CCWA — if the board votes to do that — is not entirely clear. County Counsel informed the board that simply assigning a contract does not necessarily secure a release of liability.

The last thing the Board of Supervisors wants to do is transfer the state water contract to the CCWA, a joint-powers agency, if the county and its taxpayers could still be on the hook for costs associated with the contract.

So, the board punted the problem to its staff, asking for an analysis of the financial responsibility issue before making a final decision.

Fifth District Supervisor and Board Chairman Steve Lavagnino said he wants to get a final answer on the financial liability issue, a position also favored by the other North County member of the board, the 4th District’s Peter Adam.

The other three board members seem most concerned about the makeup of the CCWA, in large part because just two of the eight members control more than 50 percent of the weighted voting power, which is based on participation in state water allocations.

Santa Maria has, by far, the biggest stake, with just more than 43 percent of the weighted voting power, far more than Goleta and Santa Barbara agencies, which have a combined 28 percent-plus total. And even with that, Santa Maria officials decided to lower their voting percentage, just so they wouldn’t seem like the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

A Montecito water official argued for the contract assignment, saying “… the best government is the closest to the people it serves …” In a general sense, that is correct — but not if all the county’s taxpayers are left on the hook financially if things go awry in the CCWA.

Another issue is the CCWA’s weighted voting system, essentially giving Santa Maria and any of the other agencies that add up to more than half the vote a total hammer, but that won’t really matter if the county can be assured that transferring the state water contract also transfers any financial liability.

Right now, with local reservoirs filling up thanks to lots of winter rain and snow, water management may seem ho-hum to a lot of folks. But as we all know, the next drought is only a couple of years of insufficient rainfall away. That is a truth proved time and time again in California.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.