Local water districts have taken very different approaches to the drought, and it’s becoming clear what works for quick conservation results — punitive measures.
The Montecito Water District declared a drought, restricted water use and then implemented rationing for every customer — all within a three-week period in February.
Without drastic measure, General Manager Tom Mosby told the board of directors, the district would be out of water by August, with customers using more and supplies dwindling.
The rationing and penalties were implemented with the goal of 30 percent conservation by October, the end of the water year.
Penalties started in April, with fees for every 748-gallon unit customers use above the allocation, and the district collected $600,000 in fees in May.
Compared with last year’s water sales, March had a 47 percent drop, April had a 43 percent drop and May had a 38 percent drop in customer use, according to the district.
In fact, 81 percent of people are using less than their allocation — the rationed amount assigned to each customer — so the district could have a carryover surplus for the 2014-15 water year, Mosby said.
For 1-acre-or-less single-family residences, the district allocated 36 HCF (or 26,928 gallons) per month. Some customers are still using more than 100 HCF per month, and they’re the ones being heavily penalized under the new fees.
In Montecito, 70 to 80 percent of the water is used for outdoor landscaping.
Although those numbers are encouraging, the conservation rates are going down as weather gets warmer, board president Darlene Bierig said.
The district hopes people are more efficient with their water use, but worries that people could start using more over the summer months.
Residents at Tuesday’s district board meeting said they’ve let lawns die, but are trucking in water to keep their other landscaping alive.
There have also been 50 permits approved for new wells in the past three months, with many more pending.
Richard Jensen said he was asked to cut water use by 81 percent and he did, but he opened a well and is trucking in water on a regular basis. It costs substantially more than what penalties would be, but he doesn’t want to be “a bad guy” on the district’s list, he said.
At least 50 families do the same, with daily water deliveries, he said. Jensen pays $65 to $75 per HCF, which amounts to 8 to 10 cents per gallon. The water itself is cheap, but trucking is expensive, he said.
Other residents chimed in, saying the property damage loss of dead landscaping would be much higher than the cost to buy additional water.
They urged the district to buy all the water it can, even if it goes above the estimated demand for next year.
So far, Montecito has purchased $1.3 million worth of additional water and is looking for more.
“As successful as we’ve been, we’re still in trouble,” Mosby said.
The district relies mostly on reservoir water, and doesn't have a groundwater basin or other supply to fall back on during times of low rainfall.
“Rationing is definitely still going to stay in place for the coming water year,” Mosby told the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
Montecito’s neighbors are taking different approaches.
The City of Santa Barbara declared a Stage 2 drought with some water restrictions in May, and on Tuesday approved drought water rates, with higher costs for higher water use. All conservation efforts have been voluntary to this point, and customers aren’t doing their share, according to the numbers.
“We had initially seen a 5 percent drop (in demand), then 12 percent for April, and then May, nothing,” acting water resources manager Joshua Haggmark said. “I’m really frustrated by it, and I think the council is, too. I’m scratching my head because I have been seeing quite a few lawns brown and hear people talk about it – it’s really surprising that we’ve seen no change.”
Higher rates were the “game-changer” during the last drought, but there are concerns that the rates aren’t high enough to motivate people to conserve, Haggmark said.
It would take several months to raise them again because of Proposition 218, which requires research and public hearings before utility rates increase. That wasn't the case in the 1990s, so the city doubled and tripled its rates quickly, which drove down water demand, Haggmark noted.
Penalties are the only way to avoid that wait-time, but the city wants to avoid rationing, he added, calling it a “staffing nightmare” to manage.
Santa Barbara should know by September or October whether the drought rates have an effect on water demand and the City Council can plan the next step.
Water employees have been doing outreach to the top 100 users — who the city won’t disclose — to educate them about incentive and conservation programs.
The county Board of Supervisors got a countywide view of the water supply problem Tuesday, and water districts focused on the diminishing levels of surface water.
Lake Cachuma is the “poster child of the drought,” playing a huge role for the South Coast’s water, county Public Works Deputy Director Tom Fayram said.
Cachuma is at 35.4-percent of capacity, so the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board is moving forward with a $6-million emergency pumping facility project so cities can get their water despite low reservoir levels.
The gravity flow for water deliveries won’t work once the capacity dips below 30 percent or so, Fayram said.
Water from Cachuma wasn’t gradually cut back during dry years, so the cuts are coming all at once. For the 2014-15 water year, starting Oct. 1, agencies will get only 45 percent of their normal amount.
In Fayram’s opinion, the county shouldn’t be in this position after three dry years.
Several agencies are buying extra water through the Central Coast Water Authority, with Santa Barbara and Montecito asking for the most.
There’s very different messaging along the South Coast, mostly driven by the availability of groundwater.
The Goleta Water District and the Carpinteria Valley Water District say they have robust, healthy groundwater supplies to help them through the dry months. They are both planning to depend more heavily on groundwater in the coming years, they told the county.
Montecito and Santa Barbara rely much more on surface reservoir water.
Montecito’s board talked about increasing its water storage capacity in Jameson Lake, boosting long-term conservation efforts, pursuing more water purchases, enhancing groundwater and considering its own desalination plant.
It may not be possible to share Santa Barbara’s desal plant, so the board will start looking into its own.
Bierig said she wants a permanent facility, running on an ongoing basis, to give the area security for drinking water.
Santa Barbara is hoping to use its existing permit for the desalination facility and get it online by mid-2016, Haggmark said.
Those permits don’t include Montecito, and “we don’t want to go down that road of getting a new permit,” he said. “At this point we’re not entertaining sharing any water.”