Faced with a dwindling reservoir and no prospect of rain, water managers on Santa Barbara County’s South Coast have pledged to take a drastic 55 percent cut in their allocations from Lake Cachuma, beginning Oct. 1.
Not since 1990 have local water agencies agreed to across-the-board cutbacks in a severe drought.
It is the largest proposed reduction in the history of the reservoir, the main water source for the South Coast.
After more than two years of little rain, Cachuma has shrunk to 36 percent of capacity, and water managers want to ensure that some reservoir supply will be available through 2015 and even into the winter of 2016, if the dry weather drags on.
“We really had to buckle down and take a lot less water,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of the county Public Works Department’s Water Resources Division.
“If we do get a big rain year,” he said, “then we can change the allocations midstream.”
The proposed cutbacks are awaiting approval by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the dam at Lake Cachuma on the Santa Ynez River.
But they will not likely translate into 55 percent cutbacks for residents, water managers say, because the South Coast can pump more ground water, draw on state aqueduct water that is banked in other reservoirs, and purchase new supplies.
Under a ballot measure approved by Goleta Water District customers in 1991, the district is banned from providing new or additional water service “to any property not previously served by the district” unless it is receiving “100 percent of its deliveries normally allowed from the Cachuma Project.”
Records show that about 1,500 new residential units and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space are in construction or under review in Goleta alone.
Even as the South Coast prepares to take less Cachuma water, ratepayers will pay more to get the water delivered.
For the first time since the 1990 drought, water managers say, it will be necessary to pump reservoir water up into the intake tower that normally channels water by gravity flow through the Tecolote Tunnel to the South Coast.
The water level is expected to drop below the intake gate in mid-September.
As an emergency measure, the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, comprised chiefly of South Coast water board directors, is preparing to install pumps on a barge and float a pipeline for more than a half-mile along the surface of the lake to the intake gate.
Including the high cost of electricity to run the pumps, the board estimates that the project will come to nearly $6 million to build and operate through February, and $8 million if the pumping continues through March 2016.
The City of Santa Barbara will draw from reserves to pay its share of the first six months of pumping, or $2.1 million.
Carpinteria, Goleta and Montecito are proposing to borrow money through the Cachuma operation board to cover their share. Goleta will owe $2.4 million, Carpinteria $715,000 and Montecito $674,000.
No one is disputing the need for the emergency pumping project, which is scheduled to go online in September. It was ratified last week by the boards of the Carpinteria Valley and Goleta water districts.
Santa Barbara and the Montecito Water District, which serves Montecito and Summerland, are expected to approve it Tuesday.
“It’s a lifeline for the South Coast,” said Karl Meier, a Montecito Water District engineer. “I don’t know where else you’re going to get water from.”
But the size and cost of the project are raising some eyebrows — and some water bills.
In two communities — Santa Barbara and Carpinteria — the project has been factored into proposed water-rate increases of as much as 100 percent and 10 percent, respectively, for residential customers.
The 1990 project was mostly designed in-house, said Bob Wignot, who performed the work himself as an engineer and then-general manager of the Cachuma operation board. The entire project cost South Coast water customers $769,000 over five-and-a-half months of operations, ending with the “March Miracle” deluge in 1991.
The current pumping project has budgeted $700,000 for consulting fees, including $200,000 for an engineering consultant to supervise the final design.
It will be sized to deliver up to 45 million gallons of water per day, compared to 27 million gallons per day in 1990.
Wignot’s report on the 1990 project notes that a maximum flow of 27 million gallons through the tunnel was large enough to handle the additional demand during the Painted Cave Fire in June 1990.
“I’m kind of blown away by the numbers today,” Wignot said. “Back then, our attitude was, ‘We’re not going to build a Cadillac, we’re going to construct a Chevy.’”
Randall Ward, the current general manager, says the Cachuma operation board chose a pumping capacity of 45 million gallons because the South Coast periodically uses that much water, especially during June and July.
Even with a 55-percent cutback, he says, the system must be able to respond to well failures and wildfires.
“We’re not expecting to pump 45 million gallons 24/7,” Ward said. “It may only operate at that level for a few hours a day. The water agencies all recognize they have extremely viable conservation programs, and from a practical perspective, they will achieve their goals.
“But at the same time, there’s a need to be able to respond to an emergency. I would characterize it as an insurance policy.”
Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, concedes that “the cost of this project is difficult to comprehend when we look at the past.”
But, he said, “It is what it is.”
Last month, the Carpinteria water board asked the Cachuma operation board to consider shifting more of the cost of the large-capacity pumps to the agencies that are most responsible for driving up demand.
“There’s been a growth in peak day demand, and we don’t think we’re the origin of it,” said Charles Hamilton, general manager of the Carpinteria district. “We’re wondering if there is some inequity there.”
Ward says the Cachuma operation board decided to stick with its present formula for cost sharing, which is based on each agency’s reservoir entitlement. At Carpinteria’s request, however, the board agreed that the electrical power costs of delivering the water would be adjusted according to actual use.
At 2 p.m. Monday, Ward will make a presentation on the design of the emergency pumping project to the Cachuma operation board at 3301 Laurel Canyon Road in Santa Barbara.
Once the project has been ratified by all four South Coast agencies, he says, the contractor will start ordering equipment. The project will be designed, built, operated and maintained by Cushman Contracting Corp., the same Santa Barbara firm that built it in 1990.
“Are you sure it’s going to work?” Bill Rosen, president of the Goleta Water District board, asked at a recent meeting.
“It has to work,” Ward said. “I’m certain it will.”
— Melinda Burns is a reporter for Mission & State.