Santa Barbara County Water Agency should seek a completely new contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation rather than simply renewing the 1995 Cachuma Project contract in 2020, a grand jury found during an investigation into the contract process.

Grand jurors came up with nine findings and recommendations for resolving each of those findings.

Cachuma Project agencies required to respond to the findings and recommendations are the County Water Agency, the County Board of Superivsors, the city of Santa Barbara, the Carpinteria Valley, Goleta and Montecito water districts and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1.

The agencies have 90 days from the June 28 release date to respond.

One of the findings said the current contract “does not fully address future water management problems such as will arise from climate and other rapid environmental changes.”

Jurors recommended the County Board of Supervisors, acting as directors of the County Water Agency, propose the new Cachuma Project contract require a public meeting with the Bureau of Reclamation every five years to consider changing provisions that have become outdated.

But the grand jury report went beyond recommending a new contract be negotiated every five years.

Jurors said the County Water Agency and five districts that distribute Cachuma Lake water should stop squabbling and speak with one voice when dealing with the Bureau of Reclamation, especially regarding the amount of water to be diverted to the districts each year.

“Regular meetings of their technical staffs could alleviate disagreements,” Rande Downer, grand jury foreperson, said in announcing the release of the report.

The report noted that under the 1995 contract, meetings between the agencies that are required every five years can’t result in increased water diversions to member units.

It recommended allowing the meetings to lead to increased diversions as long as they are consistent with federal and state laws and project water rights and don’t have a negative effect on the environment or downstream groundwater quality.

Jurors said using a “water year” starting Oct. 1 and ending Sept. 30 makes it difficult to make decisions, particularly on water diversions, because the period ends right before the rainy season begins and it's hard to predict how much water will be available in the lake over the next few months.

They recommended creating a “water year” from May 1 to April 30, or a similar period, so water diversion requests are made soon after the rainy season ends.

Another of the findings said the Water Agency and Cachuma Project member units agree technical staff meetings are valuable, but they disagree over organizational concerns raised over previous meetings.

The report recommends the Water Agency and member units set a schedule of key technical staff meetings each year to discuss project operations and report areas of agreement and disagreement to their respective boards.

Grand jurors said their investigation initially focused on the renewal of the 1995 contract, due in 2020, but they soon found parts of the contract are ambiguous.

“The Jury sought project records to educate itself on these matters,” the report said. “Most of the search was online: It was not expected to be difficult and could show how easily citizens with an active interest in water issues, or candidates for a water district board, could find information they needed.

“The search revealed two problems,” the report continued. “Terminology was unclear in both the 1949 and 1995 contracts and in other related documents, and local websites provide little access to detailed information about the project.”

Grand jurors said that in some cases, various terms are used interchangeably, and in other cases, the same term means different things.

As a result, the grand jury said directors of the Cachuma Project’s member units, along with the County Water Agency, should require key terms to be clearly defined and consistently used in the new contract.

Jurors also said the Water Agency and member units should “set up and maintain a specific website for detailed information on the Cachuma Project's history, structure, governance and operations, with links to additional historical documents and records.”

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News Editor

Mike Hodgson is news editor at the Santa Ynez Valley News, where he writes about local government, special events and the people who live in the Valley. He has been a photographer, writer, news editor and managing editor at weekly newspapers since 1972

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