Five Santa Barbara County water agencies want to reacquire State Water deliveries as a drought buffer, including Carpinteria which would need to move the water through Lake Cachuma. The lake water level has dropped so low that a pumping barge was installed to convey water to this intake tower supplying South Coast agencies. (David Flora photo)

Five Santa Barbara County water agencies want to reaquire their suspended amount of State Water Project deliveries to serve as a drought buffer, and the agreement is waiting on approval from the Board of Supervisors.

County agencies currently get State Water Project deliveries via pipeline, a process managed by the Central Coast Water Authority, but a certain amount was suspended in the early 1980s.

Carpinteria, Guadalupe, Santa Maria, Solvang and the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1 want that 12,214 acre-feet-per-year of water back, even at a high up-front cost.

On behalf of the water agencies, CCWA requested the reacquisition of that State Water Project water earlier this year and the Department of Water Resources OK’d it.

The Board of Supervisors delayed action last Tuesday and pushed the item to the Nov. 1 meeting.

“We want to move forward quickly if the board will agree to it,” CCWA executive director Ray Stokes said. “It’s kind of up in the air at this point; seeing as we entered our sixth year of drought, they’re still debating whether to bring additional water into this county.”

If it’s approved, the next steps are a California Environmental Quality Act process, paying costs to the Department of Water Resources and amending CCWA’s State Water Project contract to include this water — then delivery as needed, Stokes said.

“This water has incurred costs since it was suspended in the 1980s, so the agencies would have to repay those costs, about $30 million, and each agency would go and obtain financing or whatever they need to do and give us that money, and we pay DWR,” Stokes explained.

The agencies also will owe about $6.5 million to the county for its costs on the water, he added.

“The facilities were not built or sized to move this water, so that’s the difference — basically it’s going to serve as a drought buffer, which means any year the DWR allocation is less than 100 percent, we have the ability to bring additional water in.”

In years like the current year, when the allocation is 60 percent, CCWA would be able to pump in this water with the unused pipeline capacity.

The CCWA pipeline going into Lake Cachuma is at full capacity right now, pumping 24 hours a day, seven days a week for a total around 44 acre-feet per day. South Coast water agencies are “taking out as much as we’re pumping in,” Stokes said.

Lake Cachuma registered at 7.3-percent full as of Wednesday.

The CCWA, the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, the Bureau of Reclamation and the county are evaluating the option of installing a direct pipeline for CCWA deliveries to avoid using the lake and pumping barge altogether.

“If the point becomes where the lake is not available to be used to transport State Water then we need another alternative to get water to the South Coast,” Stokes said.

Pipelines are not as constrained further up the system, so this drought buffer water can more easily get to Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley, he said.

“We’re very hopeful the county Board of Supervisors will approve this because this water is desperately needed,” Stokes said.

There’s also the opportunity that, if these agencies don’t need the water in the future, it can be be sold or traded with other local agencies, he said. Just recently, Santa Maria sold 2,000 acre-feet of water to the Montecito Water District and another 1,000 acre-feet to the Goleta Water District. An acre-foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons, roughly the amount of water that two households use in a year.

Santa Maria Councilman Jack Boysen, who attended the Board of Supervisors meeting, told his council colleagues that the county has concerns about the risks the county would take on with this agreement for more water.

If all members of CCWA defaulted on the payments, county taxpayers could be on the hook, he said.

“It’s kind of a Chicken Little type of a problem,” Boysen said. “If the City of Santa Maria starts defaulting they’ve got a lot more trouble than Table A water.”

He said the city needs to strategize with staff and conduct additional outreach to some supervisors.

“I’m just not sure they understand the full importance of this, especially to the City of Santa Maria, and that’s where I think we’re seeing a little bit of a stumbling block,” Boysen said at the council meeting. “But we didn’t get a no. It’s not a no yet.

“I think we have a little bit of homework to do, but hopefully it will end with a positive outcome for the city of Santa Maria.”

— This story includes reporting from Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully. Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.