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Santa Barbara County Water Agencies Seek New Supplies for 2015

Districts need water brought in from other areas in the face of the ongoing drought and dwindling reservoir levels

Local agencies are asking Ray Stokes to find lots of supplemental water for 2015 to boost their supplies as Santa Barbara County heads into its second straight year of a drought emergency.

Stokes, head of the Central Coast Water Authority, manages State Water Project deliveries, and has been pursuing water transfers and purchases for districts in need.

Agencies asked for 10,500 acre-feet of additional water (about 3.4 billion gallons), and it seems easier to find deals this year, Stokes said.

The State Water Project has issued a 10-percent allocation this year, meaning water agencies will receive 10 percent of their normal delivery amount.

The market for water transfers seems to have loosened up compared to last year, when the allocation was 0 percent and eventually raised to 5 percent, Stokes said.

He hasn’t struck any deals yet, but has held meetings with other State Water Project contractors and is very encouraged.

“I’m stoked,” he said.

The Central Coast Water Authority purchased water from a rice farmer last year, and made several transfer deals, which it’s also pursuing this year.

“Usually you get 1 acre-foot today and pay 1.5 acre-foot or 2 acre-feet over the next 10 years back to them, or 1.5 acre-feet plus some money,” Stokes said.

Lake Cachuma, the main reservoir for Santa Barbara County’s South Coast, is at 28.4 percent of capacity, and an emergency pumping system is completed and remains in standby mode.

Lake Cachuma is at about 28 percent of capacity right now, and the emergency pumping system is completed and in standby mode. (Urban Hikers photo)

Once the lake levels are too low to gravity-feed water into the tunnels that supply the Santa Barbara area, the system will be turned on.

“If I can wrap these deals up, if I can get 10,500 acre-feet, then that’s going to make my life a lot easier,” Stokes said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Storms in November and December were heartening, and rainfall levels countywide are above average right now, but it hasn't helped pull the region out of a drought. 

Rainfall levels are at 103 percent of normal to date for the water year starting Sept. 1, but the Department of Water Resources is reminding people that it will take an exceptionally rainy year to get out of the drought and restore groundwater and reservoir levels.

Lake Oroville in Butte County, the State Water Project’s main reservoir, is at 39-percent capacity, which includes about 430,000 acre-feet from the recent winter storms, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

San Luis Reservoir, where Santa Barbara County water is banked and delivered from the State Water Project, is at 43-percent capacity as of Jan. 4.

State officials say cutting back on landscape irrigation is still the quickest, most-effective way to save water, and local agencies have implemented restrictions on outdoor watering.

The Montecito Water District still has rationing and financial penalties in place for users who go above their water allocations. Early last year, district numbers showed more than 70 percent of water demand was for outdoor landscaping. 

With very few groundwater supplies, the district expects to have a shortfall in the 2015-16 water year, even if everyone uses less than the rationed amount, general manager Tom Mosby said at the board’s December meeting. If the allocations were removed, he believes demand would go up again.

The district is moving forward with plans for an emergency desalination plant to help with local water supplies if the drought continues.

Board members are also contemplating a course of action for the reported groundwater basin of Slippery Rock Ranch, which owners say can hold more water than Lake Cachuma. Ranch owner representative Mark Lloyd told board members they want to test pumping water out of the basin.

The Montecito Water District is interested in buying or banking water in the basin, known as “the chalice,” but the Goleta Water District has concerns the basin could be connected to its own system.

Water officials are also holding their breath for an El Niño weather condition to bring above-average rainfall.

Weather forecasters are saying there is a 65-percent change of El Niño this winter, but it likely will be a weak one — without the torrential amount of rain — if it happens at all, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and disrupting the ocean-atmosphere in the Tropical Pacific, which has widespread weather impacts, according to NOAA.

Noozhawk news 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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