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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 3:34 am | Fair 48º


Santa Barbara County Water Managers Not Sweating the Lack of Rain

Local officials say a true drought would take another couple of years of below-normal precipitation

[Click here for Noozhawk’s weather report for the week.]

Weather lore tells us that “March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb.” But so far the month has been pretty much of a pussycat, at least in Santa Barbara County.

Ditto for February.

What started out as a promising rain season for the Central Coast has taken a decidedly dry turn, with most areas hovering right around 50 percent of normal as of Tuesday.

That could improve some with a cold winter storm expected to move through the region later this week, but the basic situation remains the same.

Officials aren’t yet uttering the D word — drought — but they are keeping a watchful eye on local rainfall totals and water supplies.

The rain gauge at Gibraltar Reservoir, part of the City of Santa Barbara’s water-supply portfolio, has recorded a meager 6.88 inches since the rain year began Sept. 1, 2012. That’s only 33 percent of normal.

The reservoir itself is only about a third full.

On the wet end of the range is Figueroa Mountain in the San Rafael Range north of Lake Cachuma, which at 12.23 inches is at 73 percent of normal.

Santa Barbara is at 54 percent, Goleta is at 64 percent, Santa Maria is at 52 percent, Lompoc is at 50 percent and Carpinteria is at 45 percent.

Gibraltar Reservoir, which supplies the city of Santa Barbara, is only about a third full due to a relatively dry rain season. (Noozhawk file photo)
Gibraltar Reservoir, which supplies the city of Santa Barbara, is only about a third full due to a relatively dry rain season. (Noozhawk file photo)

Remote Cuyama, in the county’s northeast corner, has received a scant 2 inches — or 35 percent of normal.

Two months ago, most areas of the county were at or near normal rainfall for the season, with some even ahead of average.

Santa Barbara, for example, was at 101 percent of normal, with 6.06 inches. In the ensuing period, the city had received less than 1.5 inches of new rain prior to last week’s storm.

Although that has left the citizenry looking skyward and wondering when we will get significant rain again, local water officials say they aren’t worried — yet.

The time for true concern, they say, would be a year or two down the line, assuming the dry conditions persist.

“If next year were to be dry, that would raise questions and concerns,” said Tom Fayram, deputy public works director for Santa Barbara County.

Rebecca Bjork, water resources manager for Santa Barbara, echoed that view.

“This year’s fine, and for next year we have water stored up,” Bjork said. “We’d start to run into problems the following year, and would expect cuts to go above and beyond our current conservation efforts.”

Santa Barbara operates on a 6-year period for drought planning, keyed to the last time Lake Cachuma was full and spilling, Bjork said. That period was chosen based on historical data showing that most severe droughts in the region have lasted five years, she said.

Cachuma last spilled in 2011, she noted, which means the city is only two years into the current plan.

The city also has an ace of sorts up its sleeve, in the form of its mothballed desalination plant, Bjork said.

In a worst-case scenario, the city could reactivate the facility, located at 525 Yanonali St., and begin purifying sea water for municipal uses.

Doing so would not happen quickly — taking approximately 18 months — and would carry a hefty price tag estimated at $17 million or more, Bjork said.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator of the ongoing lack of rainfall is the local reservoirs, especially Cachuma, which is about two-thirds full and sits more than 25 feet below spill level.

Driving past the lake on Highway 154, motorists can’t help but notice that the reservoir — a major water supply for the South Coast as well as the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys — is far from full.

This chart show Lake Cachuma levels for the last 26 years. (Source: Santa Barbara County Public Works)
This chart show Lake Cachuma levels for the last 26 years. (Source: Santa Barbara County Public Works)

But Fayram noted that Cachuma is not in bad shape by historic standards.

At the peak of previous droughts — in 1990-91 and 2004-05 — the lake got low enough that parts of the old highway that was flooded after construction of Bradbury Dam were visible.

“A real indicator of serious drought is when you see the highway bridges,” Fayram said, adding that the lake level would have to fall about another 20 feet for that to happen.

One reason local water officials really haven’t started to worry about supply is that they rely on a variety of sources to serve their customers. These include reservoirs, groundwater, imported State Water and recycled water, coupled with strong conservation programs.

“Like most of the other water districts and suppliers, we take a longer-term approach, and manage a diverse portfolio,” said Dave Matson, assistant general manager of the Goleta Water District.

Matson also noted that Goleta’s 87,000 customers are well-versed in the art of water conservation.

“This region is quite educated in what they can do to conserve water,” Matson said. “When it rains, people don’t irrigate.”

Matson also stressed that the rain season is not over.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have late-season storm events,” Matson said, recalling big rains that occurred two years ago in June.

Fayram is less optimistic.

“We’re nearly to the end of our rain season,” Fayram said, “and to expect that we’d get significant inflow (to the reservoirs) is highly unlikely,” even if March ends up a wet month.

Meanwhile, Bjork seemed to sum up the feelings of local water managers.

“I hope it rains next year,” she said.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton 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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