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Saturday, March 23 , 2019, 2:43 am | Fair 50º


Despite Abundant Winter Rains, Santa Barbara Remains in ‘Drought Emergency’

City officials plan to re-evaluate water-supply situation later this year but winter storms have helped reverse dire conditions

Members of the city of Santa Barbara’s Water Commission Click to view larger
Members of the City of Santa Barbara’s Water Commission receive a briefing on water supply following heavy winter rains. Officials say the outlook has improved, but the city’s water emergency remains in effect. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Recent storms have pushed Santa Barbara County’s rainfall totals above normal for the year, and have improved the area’s water-supply outlook, but officials are remaining cautious about declaring an end to the multiyear drought.

Santa Barbara “remains in a drought emergency,” water supply manager Kelley Dyer reported last week at a meeting of the city’s Water Commission.

Even though the exceptionally wet winter has helped ease the five-year drought, some areas are still in the midst of a rough stretch and plan to reassess the water supply conditions.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the Central Coast and Santa Barbara County have no level of drought or dryness.

About five months ago, the county was listed in a “severe drought,” the third highest of five levels.

The map measures on a scale from “none” to “exceptional drought” across the country every two weeks.

The Drought Monitor shows about 67 percent of California also is free of drought and dryness.

As of Friday, the county overall was at 140 percent of average rainfall to date for the rain season that began Sept. 1 and ends Aug. 31. It has received 95 percent of its average total rainfall for the entire year.

Jameson Reservoir, whose water is used by the Montecito Water District, was at 5,142 acre-feet capacity or 99.8 percent of capacity as of Saturday, according to the Santa Barbara County Flood Control District.

Drought Monitor map of California. Click to view larger
The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows that Santa Barbara County, along with much of California, is no longer in any drought designation following heavy winter rains. White areas indicate no designation, while yellow means “abnormally dry.” ( U.S. Drought Monitor map)

Gibraltar Reservoir, upstream from Lake Cachuma, was holding 4,325 acre-feet and was sending water downstream into the Santa Ynez River and the lake. The reservoir began spilling Jan. 17 after the first significant rains of the season.

Santa Barbara will commission a bathymetric survey of Gibraltar to monitor changes in capacity, according to city Water Resources manager Joshua Haggmark.

Gibraltar is the source of about one-third of Santa Barbara’s water supply during a normal water year.

Recent significant precipitation also resulted in inflows to Lake Cachuma.

Much of the water that flowed into the lake was allocated to downstream water right holders rather than to Lake Cachuma member units, including the City of Santa Barbara.

Cachuma, which stores water for the South Coast and downstream users in the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys, was storing 118,016 acre-feet or about 61.1 percent of capacity, according to county figures.

“While the climate conditions have improved for us here, we have just come off the seventh driest consecutive year, and we have a ways to go in terms of our groundwater basins, as well as Cachuma Reservoir, which has gone up, but still has a lot of space in it,” Dyer told the commission.

During Thursday’s update, Dyer said Santa Barbara’s Cachuma supply is at 8,400 acre-feet.

“We have shut down our deliveries to Cachuma as of the beginning of February,” she said. “Even if we did want to send water, there is no way. The deliveries aren’t working right now.”

Since Lake Cachuma is storing more than 100,000 acre-feet of water, Dyer said, the city has “called off the deal” with the Mojave Water Agency. Imported water is no longer needed to pursue the Mojave Water Agency exchange.

Recent storms have also postponed the need for Lake Cachuma’s emergency pumping facility, she said.

Next week, Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board officials will provide an update on the current projections, she said.

San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, where many county agencies store State Water Project allocations, was reportedly spilling, said Dyer. However, “the city’s water was not at risk,” she said.

Projections show that Santa Barbara’s water demands can be met through 2020, with a combination of Lake Cachuma, the State Water Project, water stored in Gibraltar Reservoir, groundwater, desalination, recycled water and conservation, according to city staff.

Santa Barbara officials will reassess the water supply strategy this spring, and could adjust conservation targets, as needed, to provide sufficient supply through 2021.

“We will continue to monitor our water supplies,” Dyer said. “As things settle out — everything is dynamic right now — we will come back later this spring to re-evaluate our drought declaration.”

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland 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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