After six years of intensifying dryness, the past winter’s rains have been eagerly welcomed by water agencies across Santa Barbara County as an opportunity to replenish supplies and ease certain water restrictions.
But as headlines trumpet the rapid winding down of the worst drought on record in California, local water officials are saying not so fast.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Santa Barbara County remains at the heart of what’s left of California’s drought, which water authorities say will take continued wetter-than-average weather to properly recover from.
As of Tuesday, the entire county remains in moderate drought.
“The real big point here is we’re not out of the drought, certainly,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director for water resources at the county Public Works Department.
“And we certainly haven’t solved anything in terms of our water-supply issues.”
The situation has prompted decision makers at all levels to advocate for a more regional, cooperative and proactive water-supply plan.
Last fall, when “things were looking pretty dire,” Fayram said, a state task force asked the county to put together a slate of projects to boost local water supplies’ drought resiliency, enhance long-term water planning and help inform California’s own water planning.
The county Office of Emergency Management convened an “action working group” to fulfill the task force’s request, which culminated in a February report outlining seven projects that would either bring in additional water or enhance and protect existing supplies.
“Our intent was that we would have this collaborative list,” Fayram told Noozhawk.
Resolutions of support from local water purveyors are expected to roll in by the time the county Board of Supervisors checks out the plan in April, he added.
The question now, Fayram said, is whether the state will “step up” and assist with the effort. All the projects come with hefty price tags, and the county is eyeing loans and competitive grants from the state.
“It’s kind of an undefined process of what happens after this,” he said.
Santa Barbara’s Desalination Plant
Furthest along is the recommissioning of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, which, after a number of setbacks, is expected to produce potable water this spring.
The facility will provide 3,125 acre-feet of water a year, but can be expanded to supply up to 10,000 acre-feet.
An acre-foot equals about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to cover an acre of land at about a foot deep. A typical household uses around half of an acre-foot in a year.
The city is currently working to secure extra funding for the potential expansion of the plant, as well as a new conveyance pipeline and unforeseen costs that arose during construction and testing.
The pipeline would be necessary should the city and the Montecito Water District reach an agreement for Montecito’s annual purchase of some of the desalinated water.
It also would be instrumental in eventually making the plant a source of potable water for the South Coast as a whole, a possibility the task force report made sure to note several times.
In February, city water resources manager Joshua Haggmark delineated the project’s costs as the original $55 million project estimate and loan amount, $16 million for new costs and $35 million for the expansion.
Table ‘A’ State Water
The Central Coast Water Authority, which oversees regional water supplies in the county, wants to reacquire 12,214 acre-feet of Table “A” State Water, the term for the list of original state water allocations agreed to in the 1960s between the state Department of Water Resources and local water purveyors.
Starting in the 1980s, Santa Barbara County agencies began taking only around 45,000 acre-feet per year of its original 57,000 acre-feet Table “A” allocation. The payment of the balance was suspended in the process.
To reacquire the difference, $36 million in back-payments from the agencies that want in would be due, primarily to the Department of Water Resources.
Paying for it and sustaining the required financing, the report noted, could necessitate purveyors raising their rates up to 10 percent.
The reacquisition requires an amendment in the state water contract between the department and the county, which was the other party in the 1960s contract.
Fayram said the CCWA will soon begin the requisite environmental review process, which should take 12 to 18 months, before the contract amendment can be hammered out.
Potable Reuse Supplies in Goleta, Carpinteria
Carpinteria and Goleta, the two cities on either side of Santa Barbara, are exploring direct and indirect potable reuse of recycled water.
Direct potable reuse treats recycled water to such a standard that it can be used for drinking, meaning it can be distributed through the existing pipe system. Indirect potable reuse, on the other hand, is intended to replenish groundwater basins — which the two cities have had to draw heavily on — and later treated further for consumption.
Due to its lighter treatment, indirect reuse requires its own distribution and storage system, Fayram said — an expensive additional cost that makes direct a more enticing option, although state standards overseeing the process are not yet as robust.
Goleta already has a feasibility study underway, and anticipates up to 5,000 acre-feet in additional supply after a five- to 10-year process. The final cost, should the project come to fruition, is estimated to run more than $100 million, according to the report.
In Carpinteria, which is currently looking only at indirect reuse, the same cost is estimated to be a relatively tame $20 million after a three-year process. The project is expected to yield an additional 1,100 acre-feet, and a funding analysis, technical analysis and public outreach are currently underway.
Lake Cachuma’s Emergency Pumping
Though Lake Cachuma, which recently leaped to half full from 7 percent of capacity, no longer requires its emergency pumping facility to draw water, the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board is currently considering what to do with the floating barge, 2-mile pipe and other equipment should it need them again in the future.
The agency can purchase all or part of the equipment from the operator and find somewhere to store and maintain it, continue paying the facility contractor to rent and maintain the equipment, ask it to remove the equipment altogether or some combination of those three options.
According to the report, the costs could exceed $2 million depending on COMB’s ultimate decision.
Connecting Santa Barbara, Goleta
A larger connection between the water distribution systems of Santa Barbara and the Goleta Water District is another potential project, and would increase one agency’s ability to assist the other during a water emergency.
A larger so-called intertie would also benefit Montecito and Carpinteria, according to the report.
The amount of water that could be moved through the systems under the $5-million project would increase to 3 million to 4 million gallons per day in the event of an emergency from 800,000 gallons per day.
Toxic Chromium in Santa Ynez Groundwater
After the State Water Resources Control Board barred drinking water from containing more than 10 parts per billion of hexavalent chromium, the Santa Ynez Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1 lost half the water available in its upland groundwater basin.
A proposal for a new treatment facility to reduce the amount of the toxic substance would add 2,400 acre-feet to the local supply each year, but cost anywhere from $14 million to $25 million — costs, the report notes, that “will be a huge burden to district customers” due to “the drought and hexavalent chromium regulation.”
The district’s examination of the treatment process began in 2013.
— Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.