Cachuma dam pipeline 2016
During drought years, Santa Barbara County agencies purchased supplemental water to be delivered into Lake Cachuma, as seen here in 2016.  (Santa Barbara County photo)

South Coast agencies purchased more than 27,000 acre-feet of supplemental water during four drought years to make up for lowered allocations from Lake Cachuma and the State Water Project, and for most of those deals, payback includes water in addition to money.

Agencies’ so-called “water debt” means that when the city of Santa Barbara purchased from the Mojave Water Agency last year, for example, it was committing to paying back 1 acre-foot of water for every 4 acre-feet it purchased. 

The Central Coast Water Authority manages Santa Barbara County’s State Water Project infrastructure and deliveries, and organized a Supplemental Water Purchase Program for agencies to buy surplus water.

CCWA acquired more than 27,000 acre-feet between 2014 and 2018, at a cost of about $12 million. The per-acre-foot price and payback amounts vary among agreements.

Santa Barbara has decided not to purchase supplemental water from other agencies this year, and will try to pay down some of its water debt from past transactions, water supply manager Kelley Dyer told Noozhawk.

Any purchases with State Water Project contractors require some payback of water within 10 years, while buying water from non-State Water agencies can be an outright purchase, she said.

Santa Barbara has about 3,600 acre-feet of water debt, after previously paying back some 2,000 acre-feet of water from surplus supplies the city of Santa Maria was willing to sell, Dyer said.

Dyer said some of the agencies owed, such as Mojave, can’t receive water yet since San Luis Reservoir is essentially full — at 99 percent capacity Tuesday.

“I think right now we’re just waiting for agencies that we owe water to, to be in a position where they can take it, where they can receive water from us — maybe in the fall,” Dyer said.

Chart of supplemental water purchases

Santa Barbara and Montecito agencies have purchased the most water through the CCWA program.  (Central Coast Water Authority photo)

CCWA Executive Director Ray Stokes said Santa Barbara and the Montecito Water District initially were going to participate in the Supplemental Water Purchase Program this year, but Santa Barbara pulled out.

The CCWA executed a contract with the Mojave Water Agency in case the Montecito district needs it, he added.

“After taking a look at their needs and demand this summer, they’ll determine whether or not they want to take it,” Stokes said.

He said 2014 was the worst year for water debt because supplies were in high demand with low availability, and recalled some of the agreements were for “balanced exchanges” and 2-to-1 payback.  

“The one we’re doing this year in Mojave is exactly like last year, 4-to-1, so that’s a really good deal, that’s about as good as you can get at this point,” Stokes said.

Agencies purchased more than 27,000 acre-feet of water over four years; for context, one year’s full allocation of Lake Cachuma water is 25,700 acre-feet.

Water districts haven’t been getting 100-percent deliveries from Lake Cachuma or the State Water Project in recent years, and are still waiting to hear the final numbers for this year.

The Bureau of Reclamation set Lake Cachuma allocations to 20 percent and the State Water Project has a 35-percent allocation, but substantial winter rains are expected to increase those amounts.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Lake Cachuma was at 76.2 percent of capacity, just 14 feet below its potential spill elevation.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to end its proclamation of drought emergency this week, and adopt “a resolution of concern regarding a prolonged water-supply shortage.”

“The snowpack is above 150-percent of normal, and precipitation is above 150-percent of normal; there’s got to be an increase,” Stokes said Tuesday from Sacramento, where he was hoping to get an update on the State Water Project allocation from DWR.  

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.