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Santa Barbara Residents Still Need to Conserve More Water, City Official Says

Staff are hopeful rate increases scheduled to take effect next week will serve as an incentive for users to cut back

In Santa Barbara's West Beach neighborhood, most lawns of the hotels, vacation rentals and single-family homes are still a lush green, despite the city's pleas to reduce water usage and let grass die.

Walk south to the wading pool near the Los Baños del Mar pool facility, and one gets a glimpse of what the city would like more residents to model.

Brown, dead grass encircles the pool that was never refilled after the winter months as a response to the city declaring a drought, and rate increases scheduled to start next Tuesday, July 1, may have those lush, green yards looking more like the one surrounding the empty basin.

The City of Santa Barbara is hoping that the water utility rate increases will provide an incentive for residents to conserve precious water that is dwindling as the drought continues.

The Santa Barbara City Council received a drought update from acting water resources manager Joshua Haggmark on Tuesday, who said residents still have a long way to go to hit the conservation target, a reduction of 20 percent below normal water usage.

Single-family residential homes continue to be the highest users of water, almost double what multifamily units use in the city.

Rate increases that were approved several weeks ago will take effect July 1, and penalties for offenders could come into place in the fall, Haggmark said.

He's also been fielding questions about an impending El Niño, but reminded people that an El Niño does not necessarily mean increased rainfall.

Because a high-pressure system has been sitting off the coast of California, an El Niño wouldn't necessarily help the region's drought issues because it might never reach the region, he said.

City officials are hopeful that the rate increase will be an incentive for people to reduce their water usage. Meanwhile, the city purchased some water from Vandenberg Air Force Base and is discussing water negotiations with other agencies.

City staff are also working on some recycled water system projects that would reduce water usage in treatment plants. The desalination plant is expected to come online in 2016, and the city will be coming back this fall with the impact of those costs to rate payers.

"The desalination plant will not end the drought. … It will still require discipline and extraordinary conservation" if conditions continue, Haggmark said.

The permits for the plant are valid, but a new permit will have to be obtained to reinstall the plant's pumps and screens in the ocean as well as an amended permit for the facility's intakes.

The COMB emergency pumping facility project, which will help pump water out of the low lake levels at Lake Cachuma, is expected to be online by Sept. 1. The cost is shared among member agencies of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board, and the City of Santa Barbara's share is $2.2 million. The city is pursuing grant options to help pay for the costs.

Montecito has received praise for reducing its water use since last year, after implementing rationing in February, but Haggmark clarified that Montecito uses half of Santa Barbara's amount of water, with its 10,000 residents to Santa Barbara's 90,000 residents.

"They have some pretty large estates there," Haggmark said.

Madeline Ward, who helps coordinate conservation education, said Santa Barbara has been working with property managers, homeowner associations and landscapers about how to reduce their landscape water use.

The free water checkups the city offers have been in demand, and as a result, "our phones have been ringing off the hook," she said.

Rebates are also being provided for people installing pool covers, putting in permeable pavers like cobblestone or artificial turf. 

The city also encourages people to call in water offenses, such as running water on the sidewalk or sprinklers going off during the day, at its hotline at 805.564.5460.

People are encouraged to take photos of the offenses and email them to [email protected].

"Pictures really help because property owners generally aren't aware that their sprinklers are going off in the middle of the day," she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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