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Santa Barbara County Study Shows Need for Lower Lake Cachuma Yield in New Contract

County staff will negotiate new 25-year pact with U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for Cachuma water supplies

With Lake Cachuma dwindling in the prolonged drought, Santa Barbara County officials are getting an early start on discussions with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the reservoir, for a new Cachuma Project water supply contract.
With Lake Cachuma dwindling in the prolonged drought, Santa Barbara County officials are getting an early start on discussions with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the reservoir, for a new Cachuma Project water supply contract. (Noozhawk file photo)

Santa Barbara County water agency staff are getting an early start on discussions with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for a new Cachuma Project water supply contract.

The amount of water that can be taken from the lake each year and the allocations for each water agency are set by the contract, according to Tom Fayram, deputy public works director for the Water Resource Division.

The county started a safe-yield study and the draft report showed a reduced delivery plan is needed – the same conclusion a recent Grand Jury report found since the reservoir designed to provide a 7-year water supply was nearly empty after four.

The county uses the 1945-52 drought as the critical period for modeling, but the current drought may be the new worst for water supply planning.

Lake Cachuma’s water level has dropped some 90 feet since the drought began in 2011, and it now stands at just under 14 percent of capacity.

The current 25-year contract expires Sept. 30, 2020, and allows 25,700 acre-feet to be taken out of the lake per year.

It doesn’t detail how water shortages should be handled, which is a reason maximum water deliveries from Lake Cachuma continued years into the drought, Fayram said.

Eighty percent of the full allocation was approved and distributed in 2014, 45 percent was approved last year, and no water was allocated for the current water year.

He wants the contract to allow recalculating the safe yield of the lake when conditions change, with evaluations every five years of the 25-year contract, for example.

The 1996 contract didn’t fully account for downstream releases, and there have been increased amounts of water released for endangered steelhead trout, Fayram added.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which built and owns the reservoir, recently halved the amount of water released for the steelhead, from 8 acre-feet per day to 4 acre-feet per day. That amount may reduce further after the downstream releases.

Fish releases are governed by a 2000 biological opinion and a new one is in the works, expected later this year, Fayram said.

Chris Dahlstrom, general manager of Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1, was involved in the last contract renewal in the 1990s, and said the county should get moving now.

The last contract took three years to negotiate, and this one could take longer, he said.

The county Board of Supervisors authorized county staff to approach the Bureau of Reclamation now to find out the contract renewal process and potential costs.

As surface water supplies dwindle, agencies are using more groundwater and supplemental purchased water, which is delivered through the State Water Project pipeline. 

The pipeline is operating at capacity around 42 acre-feet per day, Fayram said.

While agencies indicate they have adequate water supplies to get through this year, the limited capacity of the pipeline could be a problem, he said.

“If all agencies are taking 100 percent of their capacity, that’s where the logjam is going to be.”

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.

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