Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 7:39 pm | Fair with Haze 60º


Local News

Rain Falls and Cachuma Fills, But It’s a Long Road Out of Drought for Santa Barbara County

Region remains in severe drought as depleted water supplies slowly return to lakes and ground storage

Lake Cachuma comfortably surrounds the Tecolote Tunnel intake tower in a photograph taken in late February. Water deliveries to the South Coast start at the intake tower on the eastern end of the reservoir. Before the onset of winter rains, the water level had retreated to about a mile away, forcing officials to pump water uphill to the tower. Click to view larger
Lake Cachuma comfortably surrounds the Tecolote Tunnel intake tower in a photograph taken in late February. Water deliveries to the South Coast start at the intake tower on the eastern end of the reservoir. Before the onset of winter rains, the water level had retreated to about a mile away, forcing officials to pump water uphill to the tower. (David Flora file photo)

As a winter wetter than anyone thought possible continues, Californians are celebrating the rapid winding down of the worst drought on record.

Whereas 95 percent of California was suffering from the drought one year ago — 61 percent in extreme or exceptional drought, including Santa Barbara County — three-quarters of the state is now drought-free, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The California Department of Water Resources reported last week that Sierra Nevada snowpack, a marker of the season’s rains and an important source of state water, is at 185 percent of normal for this time of year.

There is no more extreme or exceptional dryness to be found, but despite plentiful rain, most of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties continue to be the epicenter of what remains of the drought, which is still considered severe in the region.

As of Thursday, Santa Barbara County had seen 168 percent of the rain it normally receives by this time of year.

Lake Cachuma, a historically important source of water for the South Coast, has shot up from 7-percent capacity to 47-percent capacity.

As good as the numbers look, Cachuma is only at the level it was in 2014, said Tom Fayram, deputy director of the county’s Water Resources Division.

“It certainly hasn’t gotten us out of the woods in terms of water supplies,” he said.

Because drought is a deeper condition than dryness, Fayram said one to two more years of above-average rainfall are needed to make the region truly drought-free.

He added that minimal allocation of new Cachuma water could begin after evaporation rates, water for fish releases and downstream water rights reports are tabulated. The hope, Fayram said, is to have those calculations ready in April.

While Cachuma is still pending, the City of Santa Barbara began pulling water from Gibraltar Reservoir on Wednesday — something city water resources manager Joshua Haggmark called “significant and helpful.”

Debris from the Rey Fire originally made the reservoir, currently at capacity, too mucked up to turn into potable water. The water quality has improved enough to where the city now believes it can treat it.

Because water quality can degrade again quickly over the summer, Haggmark said the city plans to draw heavily from the reservoir through September.

Potable water production from the city’s desalination plant, which is undergoing testing and some parts replacement, is now projected to begin in April, he added.

And later this month, the City Council will start to consider potentially altering or lifting its 2-month-old ban on lawn watering.

“I think there is a chance we can pull back on the moratorium,” Haggmark said.

He warned, however, that the city has to be careful with how it crafts its messaging around that discussion, as continued conservation is still vital. He said the city still must make sure it has adequate supplies for three years to come, and that these wet couple of months weren’t a fluke.

As desalination and Gibraltar come online, groundwater production will be going offline.

With normal rainfall, Haggmark said groundwater supplies, down around historic lows, will take five to 10 years to replenish. Because anything seemingly can happen with water in California, Santa Barbara will continuously test its remaining groundwater for purity in case other supplies dry up again.

In Goleta, more than half the water provided through the Goleta Water District has come from the city’s ground basin, GWD assistant general manager David Matson said.

Even though the GWD believes it’s starting to pump into the drought buffer stored there, Matson believes there’s still enough groundwater to cover demand for the next couple of years.

“We’d like to give our groundwater a rest at this point, and turn to our surface supplies and state water,” he said.

What happens with Lake Cachuma and state water allocations, along with whatever rain may fall this month, will influence how the district moves forward, he said.

This winter’s deluges in Northern California turned into a crisis for 10 Santa Barbara County water agencies that were storing 18,000 valuable acre-feet of state water in Merced County’s San Luis Reservoir.

Under state and federal rules, any carryover water stored in San Luis will vanish from the books and be relabeled as 2017 California Aqueduct supply if the reservoir fills to the brim.

That event has happened, said Ray Stokes, executive director of the Central Coast Water Authority. Roughly half, however, was saved in the nick of time when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California offered to store it for the agencies.

For coming in clutch, the Metropolitan Water District will return two-thirds of what it saved, which it must do by the end of the year, Stokes said.

Right now, local water agencies are receiving 60 percent of the state water deliveries they requested, he added.

Stokes said he expects that allocation to increase when the Department of Water Resources releases an update on the state water supply situation in the next few weeks.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Maestro, Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover, Debit

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >