Friday, November 27 , 2015, 1:14 pm | Fair 62º

Despite Recent Storms, Drought Keeps Santa Barbara County in Stranglehold

Substantial rainfall is welcomed by water and fire officials, but outlook remains cloudy as reality of water shortage soaks in

After several days of rainy weather, Maria Ygnacio Creek is flowing — albeit slowly — on Sunday north of Hollister Avenue near Goleta.
After several days of rainy weather, Maria Ygnacio Creek is flowing — albeit slowly — on Sunday north of Hollister Avenue near Goleta.  (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

By Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor | @tombol |

[Click here for a storm photo and video gallery from Noozhawk staff and readers.]

The storms that soaked Santa Barbara County over the past few days may look tantalizingly like the end of the drought here.

Yet as welcome as the substantial rainfall was, it may be akin to a desert mirage; in the end, things remain desperately dry.

Local water and fire officials told Noozhawk that the dousing the county received, beginning Wednesday, was definitely a good thing.

“It was welcome and needed, but it doesn’t really affect the drought situation,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of the county’s Water Resources Department.

The water shortage is still with us, he said, and the worry is that the public could get the wrong idea and lose focus on what needs to be done to cope with the problem.

“It’s good news to get the rain, we really need it,” Fayram said. “My concern is it will lower people’s concentration that we’re still in a drought.

“We got here in long-term dry weather, and we’ll get out of it with long-term wet weather, not a single storm or two.”

On one level, however, the numbers are encouraging.

Prior to the storms of the past few days, most areas of Santa Barbara County were at 10 percent to 15 percent of normal for the rain season that began Sept. 1.

As of 8 a.m. Sunday, that figure had jumped to between 35 percent and 63 percent of normal, according the county Flood Control District.

Lake Cachuma, which is at just under 40 percent of capacity, did gain some water from the series of storms — 557 acre-feet.

However, that amounts to only 0.2 percent of its capacity, really just a drop in the bucket; the lake still stands at more than 50 feet below spill level.

“We’d need 10-15 inches of rain up there (in the Cachuma watershed) before we’d get any appreciable runoff,” Fayram said. “We’re still behind the eight ball on that.”

While we can all hope and pray for more rain, the larger problem, Fayram noted, is that March is the last consistently wet month of the rain season.

Absent a rare event — like 1991’s “March Miracle” rains, which filled Lake Cachuma seemingly overnight and ended a multiyear drought — reservoir levels and water supplies will remain low at least until next year.

And with sunny skies back in the forecast beginning Monday, time may simply be running out for the drought to end this year.

Nonetheless, for those seeking a silver lining in this cloudy scenario, the rainfall numbers for the last few days are impressive.

During the four-day series of storms, Gibraltar Dam on the upper Santa Ynez River was soaked with 8.32 inches of rain, followed closely by San Marcos Pass, with 8.23 inches, Flood Control District rain gauges reported. Cachuma Dam registered 7.03 inches.

Santa Barbara received 5.7 inches, Goleta had 4.7 inches and Carpinteria recorded 3.95 inches.

In the North County, Santa Ynez had 4.63 inches, Lompoc measured 4.15 inches, Buellton had 3.06 inches and Santa Maria recorded 1.84 inches.

In the short term, that’s good for reducing fire danger, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy acknowledged.

“Any rains we get are great,” he said.

The recent precipitation will boost fuel-moisture levels, and perhaps give firefighters some breathing room when it comes to wildland fires.

But McElroy said he doesn’t see that lasting long.

“I think we’re still going to have a tough fire season, no matter what,” he said. “This helps, but it doesn’t really make up for three years of drought.”

The Santa Barbara Fire Department and other local fire agencies are making plans for a challenging year on the front lines, he said.

“In terms of fire danger, for us it’s always wind and humidity, and how that happens throughout the year,” McElroy said.

“It’s just a Santa Barbara thing.”

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

» Winter Storm Makes Waves — and a Few Surprises — as It Rolls through Santa Barbara County

» Big Waves Destroy Part of Gaviota Pier; More Damage Possible

» Storm Surf Forces Evacuation, Closure of Goleta Beach

Less than 24 hours after the last of a powerful series of storms walloped Santa Barbara County, the Santa Ynez River was flowing at about twice the volume as it was a week ago. (Dave Clark video)

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