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Friday, December 14 , 2018, 9:54 am | Fair 54º


Aubrey Bettencourt: Lake Cachuma Reservoir at 14.6% of Capacity, Water Crisis Continues

As a graduate of Westmont College, it pains me to see the continuing water crisis faced by tens of thousands of families in Santa Barbara County, along with millions more throughout California.

Aubrey Bettencourt Click to view larger
Aubrey Bettencourt

Our Lake Cachuma reservoir was built to withstand a seven-year drought, but Santa Barbara County communities are nearly out of water because federal fisheries biologists ordered hundreds of millions of gallons of water to be released during California’s historic five-year drought.

They are still releasing 9.6 million gallons per month, despite the fact that the reservoir is approaching so-called “dead pool” status.

In the peak drought year of 2014, 74 million gallons of water was routed to Hilton Creek from Cachuma to preserve steelhead trout habitat.

Tom Fayram, the county’s deputy public works director, told the Santa Barbara Water Commission recently that, since a 1995 contract between the county Water Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was signed, Cachuma’s storage dropped because of federally mandated water releases, including those by the National Marine Fisheries Services for steelhead trout, along with loss of capacity due to siltation of the reservoir.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli wrote recently about Santa Barbara’s water crisis:

The current drought is the driest five years on record, and it could beat out the 1945-1952 drought to be the “new worst” seven-year drought on record if the next two years continue without significant rainfall, Fayram said.

“We got to this point extremely fast, and now the reality is evaporation is going to take its toll,” he said.

Lake Cachuma supplies water to the South Coast communities of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria, and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District.

This week, Lake Cachuma was at 14.6-percent capacity, and Fayram said evaporation is becoming a more serious issue as the water in the lake drops, because it can cut into stored water in the reservoir.

A serious question must be asked: What if California’s drought continues for another several more years? Should water managers follow the federal mandates and release water downstream, or should Santa Barbara County hold on to what little water it has to avoid a public-health crisis?

More important, have the mandatory releases actually helped the steelhead? If not, what is the plan to make sure there is access to enough water to protect Santa Barbara residents and fish?

In addition to water conservation measures, are there other federal and state water regulations that should be updated to take into consideration the needs of all water users faced with our extreme and already lengthy drought?

Without doubt, Santa Barbara is running out of water because of the drought, but this problem is worse because multiple federal agencies continue to order the releases of water, draining our local water supply dry without demonstration of the benefit to species or taking into consideration the extreme circumstances of drought.

The clear answer is that we need more water storage infrastructure. Our needs include more transport from north to south through the Central Valley Project and State Water Project aqueducts to avoid harm to Santa Barbara County residents and the environment.

The water is there. We simply need to get it to the people and fish.

— Aubrey Bettencourt is executive director of the California Water Alliance, a leading educational voice and authority on California water. The opinions expressed are her own.

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