Lake Cachuma nears spill level at Bradbury Dam.
Lake Cachuma nears spill level at Bradbury Dam, as seen in late January. Some small release of lake water have been made from the base of the dam. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo

Water was lapping near the top of Bradbury Dam this week, as runoff from big storms earlier this month continued to flow into Lake Cachuma, the reservoir on the Santa Ynez River that provides water for much of Santa Barbara County.

The lake was at 99.4% of capacity, and about 4 inches below spill level as of Friday morning, according to the county Flood Control District.

Over the last week or two, some water has been released from the lake through an outlet at the base of the dam, a precursor to an actual spill, according to Matthew Young, manager of the county Water Agency.

Daily releases recently have been in the neighborhood of 230 acre-feet, and have boosted the river’s flow downstream by about 115 cubic feet per second, Young told Noozhawk.

In contrast, the daily inflows into the lake have been around 650 acre-feet, which accounts for the reservoir’s ongoing slow rise.

The lake level has come up nearly 60 feet since early December, when Cachuma was at about 30% of capacity. 

The boat launch facilities at Cachuma Lake County Park are much closer to other park amenities now that the reservoir is nearly full.
Debris gathers near the boat launch at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area’s marina after early January storms. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is the agency that manages the reservoir, and controls the timing and amounts of releases.

“Early on, the bureau was telling everyone there was an imminent spill,” Young said. “But that kept getting pushed back. Now they’re saying they are going to manage the flow through the outlet works (through the base of the dam).”

A full Cachuma means local water purveyors — primarily those on the county’s South Coast, including the city of Santa Barbara and the Goleta Water District — will be receiving their entire allocations of lake water this year.

It also provides a significant buffer for the future, after years of increasing concern about the persistent drought that has gripped the Central Coast region and the state as a whole.

Last fall, most of Santa Barbara County was designated as in “extreme drought” on the U.S. Drought Monitor map maintained by the National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Today most of the county has dropped down to an “abnormally dry” designation.

Drought Monitor map for California.
Drought Monitor map for California.

Another boost for many county water purveyors will come from the State Water Project, which sends water from Northern California to entities in Central and Southern California.

Heading into the winter, subscribers were only expected to get 5% of their annual State Water allocations.

But in the wake of recent record-setting storms, state officials announced last week that the allocations would be increased to 30%, with a likelihood they will rise again in coming weeks.

Santa Barbara County agencies have rights to a combined 45,486 acre-feet of State Water annually, but that can be adjusted downward based on supplies in Northern California, particularly the Feather River and Lake Oroville, according to Ray Stokes, executive director of the Central Coast Water Authority, which oversees the county’s State Water.

“It’s obviously beneficial for the county to have this added supply,” Stokes said.

Lakeside campsite at Lake Cachuma.
Lakeside campsites at Cachuma Lake Recreation Area are once again near the water, as the reservoir has filled up following winter storms. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo

With heavy runoff expected this spring and summer from the above-normal snowpack in the mountains, reservoir levels and State Water allocations are likely to go up again.

“I expect the allocations will increase further,” Stokes said. “The studies that resulted in the 30% didn’t really take into account the record-breaking snowfall in the Sierra.”

The county’s State Water flows first into San Luis Reservoir southeast of San Jose. From there, it goes into a pipeline that runs south through San Luis Obispo County and Northern Santa Barbara County, and terminates at Lake Cachuma.

North County participants — the cities of Santa Maria, Guadalupe, Buellton and Solvang, plus Vandenberg Space Force Base and Santa Ynez River Conservation District Improvement District #1 — take their shares out of the pipeline before it gets to Cachuma.

The shares for South Coast purveyors — the city Santa Barbara, and the Goleta, Montecito, and Carpinteria water districts — are dumped into Lake Cachuma, and reach their final destinations the same way Cachuma water does, by flowing through tunnels drilled through the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Some agencies, such as Santa Barbara and Goleta, “borrowed” water from other agencies around the state in recent years to get through the drought, Stokes said, and likely will use all or part of their increased State Water allocations this year to repay those debts.

Santa Barbara has a debt of 2,000 acre-feet, Stokes said, while Goleta owes 2,500 acre-feet.

The city of Santa Barbara’s water-supply situation has “vastly improved” over the last several weeks, according to Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager.

“We’re in a place we haven’t been in since 2011,” Haggmark told Noozhawk.

The city’s Gibraltar Reservoir on the upper Santa Ynez River is full and spilling, and the city will receive its full allocation of water from Lake Cachuma.

The city has turned off all of its groundwater wells, Haggmark said, which will allow the groundwater basins to begin recovering from heavy pumping during the drought years.

The city typically gets about 30% of its water from the reservoirs, which includes State Water; 30% from groundwater; 30% from its desalination plant; and 10% from recycling, Haggmark said.

For at least the coming year, 60% will come from the reservoirs, he said, with the remainder from desalination and recycling.

Haggmark cautioned that despite good news on multiple fronts for the water supply, drought is an ongoing concern given the area’s semi-arid climate.

“When we say the drought is over, certain elements are,” he said. “But we’re always thinking 3-5 years out…Once Cachuma starts spilling, we assume we’ve entered into a new drought cycle.”

The vista point near Bradbury Dam has been a popular location recently as Lake Cachuma nears spilling.
The vista point near Bradbury Dam has been a popular location recently as Lake Cachuma nears spilling. Credit: Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo