The Goleta Water District has taken a rancher to Santa Barbara Superior Court over his water sales to nearby Montecito. If the rancher prevails, all Californians could emerge the winners. The case has already showcased a key reality: in the Golden State, water is not evenly distributed.
The 725-acre Slippery Rock Ranch near Santa Barbara sits above 200,000 acre-feet of water, a lake-size supply well beyond the needs of the ranch’s avocado trees. Owner Dick Wolf, who produced “Miami Vice” before creating the popular “Law & Order” television franchise, sought to sell some of the excess water to Montecito, which lacks groundwater resources and relies on surface supplies.
The GWD sued to stop the sales even though in late 2015 it had itself purchased 2,500 acre-feet of California Aqueduct water from the Antelope Valley and East Kern Water Agency for $1.2 million. Water districts in Santa Clara were also in the running, but Goleta needed the water more. The districts that lost out, however, did not respond with a lawsuit to block further sales.
The GWD claims that the lake-size reservoir under the ranch is connected to Goleta’s underground basin, a contention the ranch denies. The ranch’s Cory Black told reporters that the assertion that water on private property belongs to the GWD is “not grounded in fact or law.”
The GWD had purchased water from the ranch in the past and, Black said, “only initiated litigation after negotiations for purchasing more water broke down. How did water that they had been negotiating to buy suddenly become theirs?”
Black also charged that the GWD is squandering ratepayers’ money on frivolous litigation. The court will decide whether the action is frivolous, but Black seems to have a case regarding the wasteful spending.
GWD water supply and conservation manager Ryan Drake told the Santa Barbara News-Press that the cost of the action against the ranch has increased the district’s legal budget by more than $300,000, or 32 percent. According to the report, “Ratepayers are picking up the tab.” The GWD’s budgeted legal costs for the year are $1.3 million, considerably higher than the other three South Coast water agencies.
Drought conditions prompted the GWD to impose restrictions but also to slap farmers with a surcharge that doubled their water bills. Some accused district bosses of poor planning and overstating the water supply.
Meanwhile the ranch seeks a judgment establishing its private water rights.
This is more than a local issue between two parties.
Private tradable water rights empowered arid Australia to make the best use of its existing resources. As the country’s National Water Commission explains: “Water markets and trading were the primary means to achieve this.”
Today, according to the commission, Australia’s water markets are internationally recognized as a success story, “allowing water to be put to its most productive uses, for a price determined by water users” and generating “economic benefits valued in hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
In arid, drought-ridden California the biggest obstacle for water-starved areas is not private landowners such as the ranch, who are willing to sell the supplies they own. The obstacle proceeds from top-heavy, litigious bureaucracies that seek to prevent such sales.
A verdict in favor of private tradable water rights would make all Californians the winners.