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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.

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