Water Wars: The Battle of Oprah

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Tanner Walker
Science & Tech Editor

Montecito’s water rights became national news after media reports said that Susan Geston, actress and producer, publicly questioned the amount of water that Oprah Winfrey uses at her two properties.

“I would love to find out what is going on up there,” Geston told The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t know who knows because things are done and permits are only applied for after the fact.”

Winfrey, a Montecito landowner, bought her 42-acre estate, “The Promised Land,” for $50 million in 2001. Last year, she spent $28 million on the neighboring 23-acre ranch, “Seamair Farm.”

Finding enough water to maintain her 65 acres of manicured lawns and gardens has been an ongoing challenge for Winfrey. In 2014, she hired water tank trucks to water the plants on her property. In 2015, she came under fire from a neighbor who shares a well with her and two other residents. “I’ll bet you that she alone is using 10 or 20 times what everyone else is pulling from that aquifer,” said Donovan Judkins, the neighbor.

Both of Winfrey’s properties came with existing wells, and an additional well was drilled shortly after she purchased Seamair Farms. Tapping into groundwater is legal for property owners in California, and Winfrey is not the only Montecito resident doing so. However, the local agencies’ lack of monitoring and limiting this process worries some people.

“Thousands of wells have been drilled without any monitoring that’s provided to the county or to local water agencies,” said County Supervisor Das Williams in an interview with the Today Show. “Those wells are in the same water table that the water district draws from, and we don’t know how much water they are pumping. That is a problem.”

Montecito Water District manages Montecito’s municipal water supply which draws water from a few sources such as groundwater. When property owners drill a well, they pull from the same source that feeds much of the area. The amount they drill is unmonitored.

“Water authorities also say they have no idea how many private water wells are drilled in the area. It could be 500; it could be 1,000,” said Nick Turner, General Manager at the Montecito Water District, according to the Santa Barbara Independent.

In 2014, applications for private wells peaked when the Montecito Water District passed ordinances which stated that “a water shortage emergency now exists throughout the state of California.” The district imposed harsh fines for residents who did not cut water usage to required targets.

By drilling a private well, landowners can avoid using district-supplied water, which allows them to use the same amount of water without being penalized. The water still comes from the same source, which could lead to serious problems, especially for an area “still in drought,” according to Planning Director Glenn Russell.

Overdrawing groundwater can deplete valuable springs that support sensitive ecosystems, lead to saltwater intrusion, destabilize land, and eventually dry out the most vital water source for many residents.

Later this year, the California Groundwater agency will study groundwater usage and implement a long term plan for sustaining aquifers. Supervisor Williams hopes the plan will strictly regulate and enforce preservation of the county’s natural resources. “A water district has to have a point where they have fines and another point where they just cut off the water,” Williams said. “There are some people that can just pay whatever fine.”

Skirting around regulations and bringing in water from outside sources may save Winfrey from fines and legal action, but it ultimately does little to address the larger problem. Her properties are extensive and their landscaping is poorly suited to Santa Barbara’s arid climate. As long as county rules remain as relaxed as they currently are for private wells, residents like Winfrey may continue to exploit the resources available to them.

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