Solvang agreed to form a groundwater sustainability agency with three other agencies, but some City Council members are leery of the light weight the city’s vote will carry and the perception it could end up shouldering a disproportional amount of any costs that might crop up.
Those concerns led to the 3-2 split vote to join the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, the SYRWCD’s Improvement District No. 1 and the County Water Agency to form the agency for the Eastern Management Area of the Santa Ynez River Valley Groundwater Basin.
Mayor Jim Richardson and Councilman Neill Zimmerman dissented.
California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act gives local water purveyors the choice of forming groundwater sustainability agencies to develop plans to manage their groundwater basins or to allow the state to come in and do it.
The Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District assumed the lead role of developing the agency for the Eastern Management Area of the basin through a memorandum of agreement.
Partners in the agency will cooperate with the goal of evaluating the basin, then developing and implementing a management plan to maintain a sustainable groundwater supply that benefits all the member agencies.
To do that, the agency will have the power to levy fees from the members to pay for any costs incurred, but the votes on the management plan and fees will be weighted.
In a report to the council, City Manager Brad Vidro said the county water agency will have five votes, the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District will get three votes, the SYRWCD Improvement District No. 1 will be allotted two votes and the city will wind up with one vote.
“The cost is based on the weight of the vote,” Vidro said. “So if you have one vote, you would pay one part.”
That didn’t sit well with some council members, who worried about the city being outvoted, particularly in establishing how much each agency partner will pay.
Bruce Wales, general manager of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, explained the Eastern Management Area has very different relationships than the members of the agencies already created in the other two management areas of the groundwater basin.
“The county represents 65 percent of the area,” Wales said. “The (SYRWCD) parent district represents 35 percent. That overlaps with ID-1, which overlaps with the city of Solvang.”
He pointed out that the city and the two districts were fortunate because the county historically has been paying for studies and managing the groundwater basin, and when the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act came along, the county agreed to fund it all.
Wales said the basin study will be the major cost, which the county will cover, but the member agencies will be responsible for such costs as running meetings.
“It’s hard to say what the other costs will be,” Wales said.
He noted the alternative to forming the agency could be worse.
“If we don’t establish GSAs for the whole basin by June 30, the state can come in and charge whatever fees it wants,” he said.
Some council members were ready to roll on the proposal immediately.
“I think this is a no-brainer,” Councilman Hans Duus said. “I’m ready to make a motion we go with the recommendation.”
Councilwoman Joan Jamieson was ready with a second, but Zimmerman said not so fast.
“Solvang has a right to become its own GSA,” Zimmerman said. “We’re essentially relinquishing all our rights to the groundwater, lumping us in with the eastern part where most of the usage is.
“We’re giving them all this responsibility; we’re giving them all this power,” he said. “I think this is misdirected.
“We are a city; we have responsibilities,” he added. “We should take those responsibilities into our own hands.”
Richardson said there was nothing to guarantee the city wouldn’t bear more than its fair share of the cost.
“We’ll have one-eleventh of the votes,” Richardson said. “Nowhere in this document does it say we’ll pay one-eleventh of the costs.
“Without this verbiage, I can’t sign this,” he said, adding he was sorry the city didn’t get a copy of the memorandum of agreement in advance so council members could study it and perhaps recommend changes.
Matt van der Linden, public works director and city engineer, said his understanding is the agency will be “moving forward in small baby steps,” and he didn’t foresee any significant expenses for the member agencies over the next 18 months.
“The MOA puts in place all the things we need in place for the county to go ahead and do the hydrogeological study,” he said. “If it goes sideways, there are offramps.
“We do have some rights based on historic pumping,” he added.
But Richardson and Zimmerman remained unconvinced, and both voted against signing on with the memorandum of agreement.