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Karen Telleen-Lawton: Dealing with Drought — Just How Bad Is It Here?

During the month of January, San Francisco received no rain for the first time in recorded history. It’s the good news-bad news we’re accustomed to in Santa Barbara: The crisp, clear winter days are marvelous to experience, but we desperately need the rain.

Just how bad is it here? My latest water bill contained some FAQs about the drought that were mighty sobering. Nevertheless, reading the bulletin reassured me. I feel like good people are doing their best to deal with a scarce commodity that feels abundant since it’s always there when we turn on the faucet. Officials now are weighing various solutions as well as the point and intensity with which to sound the alarm.

March 17 is the big decision day. At that City Council meeting, one week after public hearings, the council will determine whether to call a Stage 3 drought alert, the highest level. It looks like an “aye” vote will be inevitable unless our season rainfall total surpasses 25 inches by then. Given that we still have less than 9 inches, Stage 3 seems a likely bet.

The Stage 3 alert would usher in higher rates beginning in July, reflecting the estimated cost of bringing our dismantled desalination plant into the 21st century.

For those who weren’t here in the last major drought, the desal plant was built and permitted as a temporary facility in the early 1990s. Goleta and Montecito originally expressed interest in a joint facility, but backed out before the expensive environmental review and permitting requirements. So the plant is the sole property of the city.

One of the difficult choices at the time was whether to build a temporary or permanent facility. When substantial rain (naturally!) arrived the following year, some of the parts were sold off to governments around the world. Now, desalination technology is significantly better and cheaper than it was in the 1990s, so the temporary facility seems to have been the right decision.

Rattlesnake
Rattlesnake Canyon is mostly dry this winter. (Karen Telleen-Lawton / Noozhawk photo)

This time around, however, environmental laws are significantly stricter. Recent discussions have focused on whether the city would be required to adhere to regulations for new or existing facilities, and whether — even if not required — we should adhere to stricter environmental standards. One of the sticking points is intake pipes, which can suck in small fish if not covered with fine wire mesh.

Why not just focus on conservation? Some have asked why the city doesn’t just require more draconian measures now, instead of this stairstep, death-by-1,000 cuts method. Higher levels of required demand reduction are typically reserved for shorter duration emergency periods, according to the city. They may be necessary if the supply outlook worsens, or if community doesn’t consistently meet the 20 percent reduction. In other words, the city wants to right-size the emergency measure to the emergency, so that people are appropriately draconian when true emergencies occur.

We currently have sufficient supplies for 2015 as long as community continue to meet the 20 percent demand reduction.

California has always experienced droughts. Tree rings provide evidence of western droughts extending for 200 years or more. No individual drought event can be strictly associated with climate change, but human-induced climate change is expected to make weather more variable than it already is. We may come to think of five-minute showers as a luxury.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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