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As Lake Cachuma Nears Record Lows, Water Managers Do Some Soul-Searching

Reservoir that supplies much of South Coast's water is down to 16% of capacity

A long path leads over the dry lakebed to the receding Cachuma shoreline.
A long path leads over the dry lakebed to the receding Cachuma shoreline. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

There was some good news Monday as regional water managers gathered at the Marriott Hotel in Buellton to discuss the past, present and future of Lake Cachuma, the most reliable water source in Santa Barbara County — until now.

After more than 60 years, they learned, the $43 million debt for Bradbury Dam at Lake Cachuma has been paid off. The last installment was made last month.

Now, if only the lake would fill up with water. After four years of severe drought, records show water levels at Cachuma are down 82 feet to the lowest levels since 1991. 

California’s major reservoirs are at an average 27 percent of capacity. Cachuma is at 16 percent.

“I don’t need to tell you it’s a bad drought,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said to a crowd of 70 federal, state and county water managers.

The day before, the group had taken a boat tour of Cachuma for a close-up view of the barge that pumps water more than half-mile through a plastic pipe up into the giant intake tower for the South Coast. The tower now stands exposed on the dry lakebed, 100 feet from the receding shoreline.

“I believe we’re living a millennial drought today,” Quinn said. “… In some sense, we’re living the drought of the future.”

For the coming winter, meteorologists are predicting a wet season that’s “too big to fail,” meaning Cachuma could fill and spill for the first time since 2011.

But on Monday, weary water managers pondered the unthinkable: What if the drought drags on?

“Our bleached bones will be washing up on the lake shore,” said Chris Dahlstrom, general manager of the water district that serves Solvang, Los Olivos and Santa Ynez.

He flashed a fabricated slide of a skeleton lying on the dry lakebed, and his colleagues laughed.

But the mood was sober as Tom Fayram, deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Water Resources Department, brought up the problem on everyone’s mind.

After four years of severe drought, Lake Cachuma at Bradbury Dam is at only 16 percent capacity, the second lowest level since the dam was built in 1953. Click to view larger
After four years of severe drought, Lake Cachuma at Bradbury Dam is at only 16 percent capacity, the second lowest level since the dam was built in 1953. (Melinda Burns / Noozhawk photo)

The allocations of Cachuma water promised to the five agencies that paid to build the dam —​ Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria and Santa Ynez — were supposed to be available every year for seven years, based on worst-case drought predictions. But they lasted only four.

“It’s one of the issues we didn’t handle well this time around,” Fayram told the crowd. 

“We have to restore our focus on what Cachuma was originally intended to do — get us through a seven-year drought period.”

Fayram’s predecessor, Jim Stubchaer, who arrived at the county in 1958 right after Cachuma’s first spill and stayed until 1989, reminded managers that Cachuma agencies used to take a 20-percent cut in allocations when the lake level dropped to half-empty. 

“You always wanted to have some water for the seventh year,” he said. “… Now we’re in the fourth year of a drought, and Cachuma is a big problem.”

In August 2013, the reservoir hit the half-empty mark, but the Goleta Water District opposed taking any cutbacks. Lacking a consensus, the other agencies abandoned the idea, too.

Then, in September 2014, with no end to the drought in sight, they all took a 55-percent cut.

“If you’d taken those cuts earlier, you would have given the water users in the service area a warning that we’re running out of water,” said Kevin Walsh, a trustee of the Santa Ynez district.

Now, for the first time in Cachuma history, the South Coast and Santa Ynez Valley are getting zero allocations for the present water year, which began Sept. 1.

There’s still a supply in the lake for the South Coast — the equivalent of less than half a normal year’s allocation — but it is carryover water from previous years.

“Something is haywire about the way we are withdrawing water,” said Doug Morgan, a director of the Montecito Water District and the president of the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board.

Looking to the future, Joshua Haggmark, the water resources manager for the city of Santa Barbara, said, “The safe yield of Cachuma is going to inevitably be decreased. How are we going to make up that supply and still have seven years to stretch out?” 

In an interview, Fayram said the contract between the Cachuma agencies, the county and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the reservoir, must be changed to reflect the new realities of deepening drought.

A permanent 20-percent cut in allocations might make supplies last, he said.

Alternatively, Fayram said, managers could pump the lake hard during wet years and accept progressively larger cuts in dry years.

“Consensus is the biggest impediment,” he said. “The Bureau really wants us to figure it out.” 

In addition to drought, the increased siltation at Cachuma must be taken into account, Fayram said, along with mandatory releases for endangered steelhead trout below the dam on the Santa Ynez River and its tributaries.

Since 2011, the releases for fish have equaled nearly nine months’ worth of Cachuma allocations for the South Coast and Santa Ynez.

Yet despite the record lows at Cachuma, water managers said Monday they could make it through 2016 with little rain. The key, they said, is that residents are conserving much more water than the 25-percent target set by the state.

Carpinteria and Goleta are pumping their groundwater heavily. Santa Barbara is preparing to build a desalination plant. Montecito, with little groundwater to speak of, has achieved a 46-percent drop in its residential water use since 2013 through mandatory rationing.

Goleta residents, among the most water-thrifty in the state, are using an average 52 gallons per capita per day. Goleta, Montecito and Santa Ynez stopped approving new water meters last year.

And since the drought began, the four South Coast agencies have imported water from around California, a supply roughly equal to entire year’s worth of their Cachuma allocations.

If the dry weather drags on, they said, there will be additional mandatory rationing, drought surcharges and moratoriums, and bans on outdoor water may be necessary. 

Even if the floods come and the reservoirs fill and spill, managers said, conservation is forever, and so are rising water bills. In retrospect, the dam at Cachuma was cheap. 

“I don’t envision a scenario where we’re going to be dropping the rates anytime soon,” Haggmark said.

— Melinda Burns is a Noozhawk contributing writer. 

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