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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 6:25 am | Fair 41º

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City Council Faces Rainy Catch-22

Too little rain in the next few months could mean a drought, but too much could mean less-than-pristine drinking water.

As the long-awaited winter rains finally began to pour down Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council grappled with a watery Catch-22.

Too little rain in the next few months could mean a drought, but too much could mean less-than-pristine drinking water.

In the midst of Santa Barbara’s driest year in a century, a less-than-average amount of rain this winter will likely spell drought by springtime, officials said.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of the Zaca Fire — the second largest forest blaze in California history — too much rain could wash large amounts of sediment into Lake Cachuma and the Gibraltar Reservoir for lack of vegetation. If this happens, the city would have to use its reserves — which would last just a few days — while figuring out how to treat the sullied water, officials said.

Either way, the city soon may launch a campaign urging residents — and possibly even requiring new commercial developments — to conserve water.

Council member Iya Falcone on Tuesday suggested offering cash incentives to people who replace grass lawns with vegetation more natural to the area, such as manzanitas.

“Having a finite amount of water in an arid western state such as California is just a fact of life,” she said.

Das Williams
And council member Das Williams suggested requiring new commercial developments to use sanitized wastewater — known as recycled water — in their toilets.

“I think people in this community, until today at least, already thought there was a drought, and wondered why we aren’t doing anything about it,” he said. “That’s the ideal time to ask them to initiate further conservation measures.”

The possibility of an official drought declaration is still months away. On Tuesday, the council approved the city staff’s annual water supply report, which advised the council to hold off on deciding whether to declare a drought until the rainy season is over.

“If we don’t get at least average rainfall, we’ll be back in the spring asking for a Stage One drought,” said Rebecca Bjork, the city’s acting water resources manager.

In a Stage One drought, citizens are asked to conserve water. In a Stage Two drought, the city would publicly announce a goal to reduce water use by 10 percent, and the council would consider increasing the cost of water. In a Stage Three drought — also known as a “water shortage emergency” — rates would go up, and the city could impose “drastic water use restrictions.”

This is what happened the last time the city experienced an official drought, which lasted from 1989 to the early 1990s.

By the early 1990s, the water level at Cachuma sank to 50 percent of the lake’s capacity. Now, it sits at around 70 percent — the same level it was at in 1989, when the council declared the drought, Bjork said.

The city gets about 60 percent of its water from Lake Cachuma, located off the San Marcos Pass, and about 33 percent from the Gibraltar Reservoir, located near the Santa Ynez River. The rest comes from either the state water program — which transports water to Santa Barbara from the Sacramento Delta — or sanitized wastewater, which is often used to water golf courses, parks and the landscapes of large businesses, such as Cottage Hospital.

In case of emergency, the city also has a desalination plant at 525 E. Yanonali St. that converts salt water into drinking water. But much of the equipment for the plant was sold, and firing it back up would be expensive, officials said.

Meanwhile, the manmade Gibraltar Reservoir is shrinking. Due to erosion, its capacity has been cut in half since it was built in 1914, from 14,000 acre-feet to 7,000 acre-feet. Now, due to the Zaca Fire, it is expected to shrink down to 3,000 acre-feet within five years, Bjork said.

Luckily, she said, the last drought of more than a decade ago trained local residents to conserve water. But there is evidence that local water use is creeping back up.

After the drought, the city’s annual water use plummeted from about 18,000 acre-feet to 14,000 acre-feet. But in the last “water year” — which ended on Sept. 30 — the amount rose significantly for the first time since the drought, to 15,000 acre-feet, she said.

Bjork said she’s not alarmed — yet. “I will be alarmed if it remains high,” she said.

To learn more about local incentives to reduce water usage, click here.

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