Friday, September 21 , 2018, 9:01 pm | Fair 64º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Santa Barbara County Still a Long Way from Drought Relief Despite Wetter Winter

First step is to line up enough storms to trigger runoff into Lake Cachuma, water authorities say

Water coming into Lake Cachuma has been primarily from the State Water Project pipeline at Bradbury Dam for the past several years of drought. Click to view larger
Water coming into Lake Cachuma has been primarily from the State Water Project pipeline at Bradbury Dam for the past several years of drought.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

The Central Coast could almost be confused with the Pacific Northwest this week, as storms line up to drop much-needed rain on the parched region.

California as a whole is in the midst of the wettest winter since the beginning of its long, record-breaking drought.

Talk of modest, incremental relief, however, does not really apply to Santa Barbara County, which continues to sit firmly in the dark-red “exceptional drought” region of the state map.

The county as a whole is sitting a smidgen above normal-to-date rainfall for this winter.

One especially rainy winter won’t end the drought, though — that would take multiple consecutive seasons of above-average rainfall, according to Tom Fayram, the county Public Works Department’s deputy director for water resources.

This wet winter has been a good start to finding some relief.

“It’s really important that we get a base amount of rainfall on our watersheds before we really get any runoff,” he explained. “Particularly runoff in the Santa Ynez River, which is what we need to define relief in our drought situation.”

The first step to that relief is observing inflow into Lake Cachuma, historically a major source of surface water for the South Coast.

Fayram said 12 to 15 inches of water on the ground are needed to trigger inflow into the reservoir, which is effectively fed now only by imported State Water.

Lake Cachuma’s water level has steadily dropped during the drought and the county will likely need 12 to 15 inches of rain to get any runoff into the reservoir, according to county officials. Click to view larger
Lake Cachuma’s water level has steadily dropped during the drought and the county will likely need 12 to 15 inches of rain to get any runoff into the reservoir, according to county officials.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

Receiving that much water in a short time is much more effective at triggering inflow than 12 inches accumulated bit by bit over a long period, he said.

Between Sept. 1 and Thursday morning, Bradbury Dam had seen 4.7 inches of rain, according to county Public Works data.

If Santa Barbara County can continue lining up storms this winter, Fayram said, it can continue building up toward that 12 to 15 inches.

“Right now, we’re slowly closing in on that,” he said.

The past week’s storm, which dropped between 0.5 inches and 1.5 inches in most places, dumped a foot of water into some of the mountainous areas of San Luis Obispo County.

That was good enough to raise Lake Nacimiento there by a couple feet.

“The physical location of where the focus of the moisture is has a big impact,” Fayram said.

Santa Barbara has a 90-percent chance of rain on Saturday, with a 90-percent chance for heavy showers on Sunday night and Monday. A chance of rain is also projected for next Wednesday and Thursday.

Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Lompoc, Carpinteria and Isla Vista each have a warming center on Friday and Saturday for folks with no place to escape the rains. They’ll be open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The wet weather has run somewhat contrary to forecasts for a La Niña event this winter, which was forecast to bring cold and dry conditions to Southern California.

Currently, there is a “weak” La Niña in place, which still tilts the odds toward an overall dry and cold winter for Southern California, said National Weather Service meteorologist Robbie Munroe.

He added that because it’s weak, unusually dry conditions are not certain to return.

Long-range forecasts for Santa Barbara County indicate equal chances of near-normal or above-normal precipitation for the rest of the winter, Munroe said.

While Southern California has seen a fairly normal winter, Northern California has seen enough heavy rains and snows to modestly ease its own drought.

On Wednesday, the California Water Resources Control Board announced that measurements taken by the state Department of Water Resources indicate that statewide snowpack — the melting of which provides a major source of water for the state — is about 70 percent above average for early January.

“More water up north is a good thing. It’s good for everybody,” Fayram said. “It does help our supplies because we do get State Water. It means that, perhaps, they don’t have to go out and purchase additional water.”

The Central Coast Water Authority, he said, has been successful in acquiring additional supplies during lean times, and the pipeline will be filled to capacity with incoming water for some time.

“It was meant to be a supplemental supply, but it’s acting as the lifeline right now, for the South Coast at least,” he said.

Even if the county were to emerge from the drought, it would still face considerable water supply issues, he continued.

“Over the years, there have been more demands on Lake Cachuma. … We’ve been drawing on the reservoir harder than what the reservoir can deliver.”

Having to store water for downstream water rights, though mandated by law, reduces capacity for other water diversions, Fayram said.

Water supply is further affected by required water releases for endangered species such as steelhead trout.

The reservoir, he added, has to be managed “in a manner that preserves water for times like this — and we didn’t do that over the last couple years.”

A working group with purveyors headed up by the county is currently looking at how better manage water supplies and improve future supplies, he said.

“We don’t want it just to rain and then think that the problem is solved, because the problem’s not solved.”

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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