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County Supervisors Hear Improved Drought Update

With Lake Cachuma now only about 30 percent full, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors got an update on the drought on Tuesday.

The board discussed the lake, which is a major water supply for the region, as well as other sources that are critical to filling in the shortages.

The supervisors voted unanimously to receive the report.

Earlier this year, county Water Resources Deputy Director Tom Fayram told the board that if the county experiences no rain, the lake could be essentially empty by next October.

On Tuesday, Fayram said that estimate has been pushed back a bit, as reductions in Cachuma's water elevation have slowed because of conservation efforts and more State Water deliveries. 

The supervisors had previously asked about the number of well permits given out in the county, and groundwater remains a key concern across the state.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed several bills that will attempt to regulate groundwater usage, which has not been constantly monitored in the past.   

Landowners had the discretion to pump water from underground sources, even if they remove water before the aquifer can naturally replenish it.

There have been 165 new well permits given out last year, according to Larry Fay, who works in the county's Environmental Health Services Department.

Groundwater has been in demand, particularly in districts where water restrictions have prompted property owners to look for other sources of water.

The county is on track to have about 120 new well applications for 2014-15, he said.

"That's a lot more wells than we are typically seeing," he said, with the majority being in the Montecito and Carpinteria areas. "That's where our big jump is. Well-drillers are in great demand."

County departments don't monitor the amount of water extracted, and only ensure that the construction of the well is done properly from a safety standpoint.

The county doesn't have any authority to deny a well permit, other than based on health-and-safety codes, for example, if a well is placed too close to a septic tank.

Adding more oversight is "really the thrust of the legislation that was approved earlier this year," Fay said.

The county is actively investigating four unpermitted wells in the county, however.

Randy Ward, general manager for the Cachuma Operation Maintenance Board, or COMB, also spoke during Tuesday's meeting, about the pumping operation in place should water get so low it needs to be pumped out of the lake. He said the agency is now waiting for the lake to drop to the level necessary, hoping to be able to gravity feed the water from the lake into November.

A dredging operation took place to remove sediment from one of the gates that would allow water to gravity feed from the lake without the need for pumps, he said.

Supervisor Doreen Farr said she'd like to know what authority the board has in terms of water restrictions on a county level.

In the past, the board has delegated authority in water matters to other agencies, including water purveyors.

Cities have presented a patchwork of restrictions and usage on water within their districts.

Santa Barbara has asked residents to conserve, and the Santa Barbara City Council got an update on Tuesday at its meeting that the city is meeting its 20 percent voluntary reduction in water usage.  

City leaders also stated that they'll rely heavily on purchasing supplemental water in the coming months, and attempt to stretch their limited Lake Cachuma allotments through winter of 2016 in an effort to put off reactivating the city's desalination plant.

In terms of what can be done countywide, Farr said she'd like more answers.

"I'd like a better understanding of what power the board has now or doesn't have," she said, adding that the new state groundwater legislation will likely play into that conversation.

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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