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Local News

Grand Jury Report Eyes Lake Cachuma’s Diminishing Water Supplies

Water agencies on Santa Barbara County's South Coast likely to get less water from reservoir

A pumping barge was installed in Lake Cachuma to continue water deliveries to the Santa Barbara County South Coast as reservoir levels drop during the drought.
A pumping barge was installed in Lake Cachuma to continue water deliveries to the Santa Barbara County South Coast as reservoir levels drop during the drought.  (Joshua Haggmark photo)

All the signs point to water agencies on Santa Barbara County's South Coast getting smaller amounts of water from Lake Cachuma in the future.

The county Grand Jury came out with a report that outlines the issues deputy public works director Tom Fayram has been discussing for months: The reservoir that was designed to withstand a seven-year drought was “virtually dry” after four dry years.  

“We’re counting the drops now,” said Fayram, who heads the water resources division.

Since the 1995 contract between the Santa Barbara County Water Agency and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was signed, silt caused the storage capacity to drop, there have been regular downstream water releases, and the National Marine Fisheries Services mandated water released downstream for endangered steelhead trout, Fayram told the Santa Barbara City Water Commission last week.

The contract expires in 2020, and the county is already initiating talks with the Bureau of Reclamation for the new one, said Fayram, who heads the Water Resources Division.

Santa Barbara County started a safe-yield study – to see how much water could sustainably be taken out of the lake – but stopped since the region might redefine the critical drought period used for water supply planning.

The current drought is the driest five years on record, and it could beat out the 1945-52 drought to be the “new worst” seven-year drought on record if the next two years continue without significant rainfall, Fayram said.

“Using what we have now, we do know the safe yield of the lake would be significantly lower than it is now,” Fayram said.

Lake Cachuma supplies water to the South Coast communities of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria, and the Santa Ynez River Conservation District Improvement District No. 1. 

The latter has downstream water rights, while the others get water pumped through the Tecolote Tunnel and into the South Coast Conduit.

The contract allows 25,714 acre-feet of water allocated to these agencies each year, which is too much since the reservoir was nearly dry after four years, the grand jury report stated.

Local water agencies also made no move to cut back on water deliveries until several years into the drought.

Lake Cachuma last spilled over Bradbury Dam in 2011, and years later, water was flowing out of it at the normal rate to South Coast water agencies, even though the region was in a drought.

Lake Cachuma seen in August 2013, according to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury Report. Click to view larger
Lake Cachuma seen in August 2013, according to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury Report.  (Contributed photo)

“By 2013, two years after the lake spilled, the water in the lake was reduced by about 50 percent to 91,922 acre-feet. In hindsight, alarm bells should have been ringing at this point,” the grand jury reported.  

“Reductions in water distributions did not occur until 2014, when Lake Cachuma was at only 33 percent full and member units took approximately 20 percent less than their entitled amount.

For the first time in the history of the Cachuma Project, no new annual water allotments are scheduled for 2016.”

All the water agencies supplied by Cachuma declared drought emergencies in 2014, with Montecito going as far as implementing rationing with penalties for violators.

The water level of Lake Cachuma dropped dramatically by January 2016, according to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury Report. Click to view larger
The water level of Lake Cachuma dropped dramatically by January 2016, according to the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury Report.  (Contributed photo)

The report suggests the new contract allocate water amounts on a sliding scale, based on consecutive dry years.

The report also suggests that agencies set expiration dates for water service approval documents for development projects to avoid a lot of building during drought periods. 

“Citizens of Goleta continue to express their dismay within formal public arenas (such as newspapers, board meetings, and online chat websites) and less formally in casual conversations all over town, at the amount of development that is going on during the worst drought in history,” the report stated.

“The jury learned that the Goleta Water District issues its 'Can and Will Serve' letters on water resources they predict will be available during a normal weather year. No consideration is given to the possibility of having to supply water to an ever-growing community when water shortages occur over many years.”

Cachuma is not only a major water supply, but the cheapest per-acre-foot water for South Coast water agencies, especially compared to the supplemental water purchases they’re making now – which often include a promise to return the water within 10 years.

The $8.6 million emergency pumping barge, needed to connect the diminishing lake with the intake tower to supply Tecolote Tunnel, was another big drought-related expense. 

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.

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

“If there’s no inflow in 2017 and the minimum pool continues to evaporate at that point because it’s the only water left in the lake, you could end up with a problem of getting State Water Project through the lake as that lake falls.”

Lake Cachuma needs a minimum pool of 12,000 acre-feet to keep moving State Water Project water from the intake pipe, near Bradbury Dam, to the pumping barge. That minimum pool also supports the living lake environment, Fayram said.

The Grand Jury Report comes as the State Water Resources Control Board decided to eliminate mandatory conservation, and instead came up with resolution mandating urban water suppliers ensure at least a three-year supply of water to customers under drought conditions.

Board Chair Felicia Marcus said drought conditions were given some relief by winter rains, and the state is prepared to come back with a 25-percent conservation mandate in early 2017 if necessary.

Most of the rainfall from El Niño storms hit Northern California mountains and reservoirs, while there was no runoff into Santa Barbara County reservoirs.

“Nothing’s changed in our region, so I would hope those conservation targets would be the same if not exceeded,” Fayram said.  

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Deliveries from Lake Cachuma weren’t cut back until 2014, when the lake was at 33-percent capacity and Santa Barbara County water agencies declared drought emergencies. Click to view larger
Deliveries from Lake Cachuma weren’t cut back until 2014, when the lake was at 33-percent capacity and Santa Barbara County water agencies declared drought emergencies.  (Contributed photo)
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