Lake Cachuma aerial view
Local water agencies say they are heartened by Lake Cachuma’s rising levels, but still face water supply shortages. Santa Barbara County is considering ending its drought emergency proclamation, which has been in effect for more than five years.  (Shawn Knight photo)

Local water agencies say both of these things are true: The drought is over for most of California, and southern Santa Barbara County has water shortages.

Office of Emergency Management Director Robert Lewin recommended that the county Board of Supervisors terminate its proclamation of a local emergency due to drought conditions, which has been renewed every 60 days since January 2014.

The drought emergency relates to climate conditions, and public peril and safety, and this winter’s rainfall amounts and snowpack indicate that the drought is over, he said at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting.  

South Coast water agencies don’t like the messaging of ending the drought emergency, and said they have ongoing drought impacts, including water shortages, and will need customers to keep conserving water.

First District Supervisor Das Williams pushed his board colleagues to delay terminating the emergency proclamation due to the water agencies’ concerns, and made a motion to bring back the issue at next week’s meeting.

He said public perception is more important than the statutory definitions for the proclamation, and that he would rather delay action and send no message “rather than a counterproductive one.”

Supervisors Peter Adam and Joan Hartmann disagreed, saying the proclamation was a technical and legal issue.

“We can’t continue to have a drought emergency based on the fact that we don’t think we’re in as good of shape as we could be for water,” Adam said.

The board voted to push the issue to next week, where they may decide to terminate the emergency proclamation and pass some kind of resolution to recognize water shortage concerns.

As of midday Tuesday, the county had received 138-percent of normal-to-date rainfall, and 105-percent of normal rainfall for the water year, which ends Aug. 31.

Santa Barbara City Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark told the Board of Supervisors he wants to make sure people understand the difference between the drought ending and an end to the city’s water shortage, which hasn’t happened.

It will take more than one wet year for water supplies to rebound from the cumulative effect of an 8-year drought, he said.

Groundwater levels in Santa Barbara hit a historical low in 2016, and since then the city has been “resting” them to let them recover.

After the 1990s drought ended, it took five to 10 years for the basin elevations to rise and push out seawater intrusion, Haggmark said.

The city’s Gibraltar Reservoir and Montecito Water District’s Jameson Reservoir are both full, but both have water-quality issues from the Thomas Fire that make the water difficult or impossible to treat and use, he added.

Just as it took a few years to feel the impacts of the drought, it will take a few years to recover, said Carpinteria Valley Water District General Manager Robert McDonald.

Water agencies are working together to notify customers that they need to keep conserving water, he said.

The Montecito Water District sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors saying “it is premature for the county to conclude that drought emergency conditions are over.”

Water districts will have a better idea of their supply outlook in a few months, after the rainy season, the letter said.

While agencies are expecting increased allocations from the State Water Project and Lake Cachuma, the numbers have not been officially raised yet, the districts noted.

Kelley Dyer, the water supply manager for Santa Barbara, elaborated on the city’s feelings of uncertainty, and said any changes to the drought declaration would probably happen in May.

“All the South Coast agencies are in the same boat; we’re not out of a water shortage yet and have to wait until the end of the rainy season to see how things settle out,” she said.

Lake Cachuma filling to capacity and spilling would be an easy trigger to drop water-shortage declarations, she said.

The reservoir was 65.3-percent full Tuesday afternoon, storing 126,274 acre-feet of water.

“I think if we get a full allocation at the Cachuma Project, which we haven’t now for several years, and our projection shows the lake level not dropping below the 100,000 (acre-feet) mark in the next year, we would certainly be looking to alleviate some of the water-shortage declarations,” Dyer said.

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

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at