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Lack of Rainfall Could Force Emergency Water Reductions in Santa Barbara County

Extended dry spell evokes memories of 1987-1991 drought and has water agencies asking for voluntary conservation

As Santa Barbara County’s prolonged lack of rain takes its toll, more of Lake Cachuma’s bed has been emerging as the water level recedes.

As Santa Barbara County’s prolonged lack of rain takes its toll, more of Lake Cachuma’s bed has been emerging as the water level recedes.  (Urban Hikers photo)

By Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @magnoli |

[Click here for a related Noozhawk photo gallery.]

South Coast water agencies may be declaring emergencies if it doesn’t rain by the end of March.

Last year was one of the driest years on record in Santa Barbara County, with below-average rainfall and shrinking reservoir levels. Water agencies already are drawing comparisons to the 1987-1991-era drought, and say voluntary and mandatory conservation orders may be coming soon.

The county is four months into its third dry water year, which started Sept. 1, with only 22 percent of the normal rainfall. Only one location — the U.S. Forest Service station on Figueroa Mountain — has had more than two inches of rain in that time, according to the county’s Public Works Department.

Every reservoir is drying up, too, officials say. Lake Cachuma, which provides water to five water districts, was at 40.3-percent capacity as of Jan. 1 and many jurisdictions have started using more state water to supplement supplies.

Water Supply Level of capacity (Jan. 1)
Gibraltar Reservoir 6 percent
Cachuma Reservoir 40.3 percent 
Jameson Reservoir 28.1 percent
Twitchell Reservoir 0.2 percent

“The last two water years have been dry, and it’s very dry for the beginning of this year,” said Tom Fayram, the county's director of water resources.

Since water years start in September, the current year has the rainiest months still to come. None of the reservoirs have had runoff to recharge water levels.

North County cities have larger groundwater basins and are less affected by consecutive dry years, Fayram said. They use groundwater as well as state water deliveries, he said.

South Coast water agencies have diverse portfolios of water resources compared to the North County, but agencies are asking for community conservation efforts.

“Last year was one of the driest years I think we’ve ever had,” said Joshua Haggmark, interim manager for the City of Santa Barbaras Water Resources Division. “It’s not looking good right now.”

If the area gets below-average rainfall again, which is what NOAA is forecasting, the city may go into “Stage 1 drought” with voluntary reductions in usage, he said. The prime rainfall period would have passed by March, so that’s when the city will consider its options.

More people are aware of the problem and help with conservation efforts, like asking for water audits or water-wise landscaping assistance, he said. But depending on the success of voluntary conservation, he said a mandatory reduction could still be coming.

The city used 129 gallons of water per person per day last year, according to the annual water supply management report. It’s above long-term targets, but the below-average rainfall means there was more demand for water.

With the city’s drought plan, shortages aren’t expected until the fourth consecutive year of a six-year drought period, and the city has had two — perhaps three if there is no rain this winter.

The city usually gets a third of its water from Gibraltar Reservoir, but treatment costs for the silt-ridden water are so high the city isn’t even drawing from that supply, Haggmark said.

It’s much cheaper to treat the water from Lake Cachuma for now, he said, so Gibraltar has about 700 acre-feet sitting in it untouched. An acre-foot represents the amount of water it would take to cover an acre of land 12 inches deep. Santa Barbara also gets its supply from groundwater, recycled water and state water.

Santa Barbara built its desalination plant during the last big drought, from 1987-1991, and Haggmark’s staff wants the City Council to consider bringing it back online.

It would take at least two years — and an estimated $17.7 million — to make the plant operational and produce drinking water for the city.

Water Year 

Countywide Percent of Normal Rainfall
2004-2005 188 percent
2005-2006 115 percent
2006-2007 36 percent
2007-2008 102 percent
2008-2009 67 percent
2009-2010 117 percent
2010-2011 154 percent
2011-2012 66 percent
2012-2013 46 percent
2013-2014 22 percent (as of Jan. 1, 2014)

The Goleta Water District has also planned for dry years, general manager John McInnes said.

Like Santa Barbara, the district relies on water from the state, Lake Cachuma, groundwater and recycled water to serve customers.

McInnes said the district has been using state water for the last six months to get through the below-average dry months.

An aerial photo of Lake Cachuma taken last week shows how much the lake level has dropped. (Max Rosenberg photo)

He said he expects to use a lot more of it for the current year, which is an expensive undertaking. The district used 800 acre-feet of state water for the 2012-2013 water year and expects to use 3,300 acre-feet this year, he said.

In Montecito, the water district has been warning customers about drought conditions for about eight months, general manager Tom Mosby said.

“Our position is that we’re in serious trouble now and we will, if it does not rain by the end of March, declare a state of water emergency,” he said.

“We will go out to the community and let them know we somehow have to reduce water consumption by at least 25 percent or we will run out of water. Period.”

The district's board of directors will look over a draft water shortage ordinance in January, including details on how supplies would be divvied up, he said.

Some Montecito customers have taken the conservation messages to heart — including golf courses that, according to Mosby, have cut usage by 60 percent — but a lot of people are still overusing, he said.

“One of the challenges we have here, of course, is a lot of customers are able to pay the high cost of water,” he said. “Many of them don’t see the bills or don’t question them.”

The county’s Office of Emergency Management released a drought warning Friday, saying the below-average rainfall and reservoir levels could affect water supplies, agriculture and firefighting capabilities throughout California. Some cities are already implementing mandatory conservation orders and Gov. Jerry Brown has put together a drought task force, according to the county.

Click here for a related article on Lake Cachuma.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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.




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