Santa Barbara’s mandatory lawn watering ban has been lifted and the citywide conservation target has been reduced, thanks to heavy winter rains that significantly improved the drought-stricken water supply.

The City Council voted 5-2 last week to switch the watering ban to voluntary from compulsory and to lower the water conservation target to 30 percent from 40 percent.

Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmen Gregg Hart, Frank Hotchkiss, Randy Rowse and Bendy White voted for the changes. Council members Jason Dominguez and Cathy Murillo dissented.

The City Water Commission’s input supported the proposed new conservation target but recommended that the mandatory lawn ban remain active.

City staff, Water Resources manager Joshua Haggmark and water supply manager Kelley Dyer had determined that the increased water supplies are expected to alleviate the city’s water needs during high summer-use periods.

Santa Barbara remains in a drought even with the significant rainfall, and water conservation remains a top priority, according to Dyer.

Residents and businesses were encouraged to continue conservation efforts.

“There’s still a ways to go in recovering from the impacts of drought,” Dyer told the council.

Other drought water use regulations remain in effect:

» Drought notices required in lodging, restaurants and gyms

» Water served only upon request

» Watering is limited to early morning and evening hours

» Watering during or 48 hours after rainfall is prohibited

» Runoff and overspray are prohibited

» Hoses must be used with shut-off nozzles

» Commercial fountains over 25 feet may not operate

» No washing of pavement and other hard surfaces

» Pools and spas must be covered when not in use

Council members adopted the new resolution after receiving an update on the city’s water supplies.

“Everybody still realizes there’s a drought — even if it’s raining,” Rowse said.

Gibraltar Reservoir

The winter storms collected runoff in local reservoirs, and Gibraltar Reservoir has filled thanks to the mid-February rainfall that brought about 10 inches of precipitation in two days.

Water officials plan to use 3,300-acre-feet of water from the reservoir through September.

“We are primarily using the Gibraltar water and that makes up the majority of our (Santa Barbara) water supply,” Dyer said.

From 2012 to 2016, Gibraltar Reservoir received “well below” average rainfall — the rainfall precipitation is about 28 inches, she said.

Now, she said, the reservoir is “slightly above normal.”

Lake Cachuma

Lake Cachuma is sitting at 49 percent of capacity, the highest level it’s been in years.

The Bureau of Reclamation anticipates releasing a partial allocation for the Cachuma Project in April.

The lake is at the same level as when the drought became “serious” in 2014, Dyer said.

“The levels at Cachuma are approximately the same as when we began this journey of the drought,” she said.

Water from Lake Cachuma —Santa Barbara County’s largest reservoir — is a shared by several different agencies.


Desalination is expected to play a role in recovering from the long-term impacts of the drought, preparedness for future drought and emergencies, as well as in addressing potential future reductions in water supply from Lake Cachuma, according to a staff report.

The Cachuma Project water supply could be reduced by reduced storage capacity from sedimentation and upcoming environmental regulations, according to city staff.

After providing drinking water for a few months in the early 1990s, the Santa Barbara’s desalination plant is expected to resume production in April.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility, at 525 E. Yanonali St., is projected to turn millions of gallons of ocean water a day into fresh drinking water.

Major construction is complete, and Dyer said the site is currently in the testing phase.

“It’s a real local supply,” she said. “Without desalination, groundwater is the only local source.”

Dyer noted that permitting allows the plant to be operated even in nondrought conditions.

“After this drought emergency ends and our groundwater supplies recover, we want to re-evaluate the role of desal in our water supply,” she said.

The City Council last month voted to pursue additional funding for a potential expansion of the desalination plant and a new conveyance pipeline. That vote authorized an increase in the city’s State Revolving Fund loan application to $106 million.

“With the recent rains, we are able to postpone the decision on desalination expansion and the conveyance pipeline,” Dyer said. “We aren’t pursuing any funding for the conveyance project — but might in the future.”

The City Council voted unanimously to reactivate the desalination facility in 2015 in response to drought conditions.

“It’s a complicated project that has been completed in less than two years,” Dyer said.

Officials expect the plant to produce nearly 3 million gallons of water per day, or about 3,125-acre-feet of water a year — enough to meet about 30 percent of the city’s annual water demand.

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.

“We are looking forward to coming online, despite the rainfall,” Haggmark said. “The water supplies situation remains severe, and we continue to plan as if the rainfall received is all we get in the next three years.”

Developers upgraded the plant’s old desalination unit and put a new one in its place with state-of-the-art reverse osmosis technology.

The reactivated site not only anchors a new technology but city officials say the facility is projected to reduce its electricity demand and carbon footprint. It is expected to use 40 percent less energy than the original design.

Activating the plant has some opponents concerned about the environmental impacts.

“It will consume an enormous amount of energy to run, generating substantial greenhouse gas emissions and defying the city’s stated commitment to reduce energy use,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. “It is the single most energy-intensive water supply source.”

The nonprofit Channelkeeper monitors the health of marine habitats and the waters in communities along the Santa Barbara Channel.

Redmond said the plant harms marine life and “will discharge massive amounts of concentrated brine and chemical byproducts back into the ocean off Stearns Wharf.”

She said that one of Channelkeeper’s greatest concerns is the death of marine organisms to be caused by the intake of ocean water into the desalination plant.

The process involves pulling sea water through a pipeline.

Redmond also added that desalination is a bad deal not only for Santa Barbara’s environment but also its ratepayers.

“Desalinated water will be more expensive than any other water supply source, and now that the drought is over in most of the state and there will be plenty of cheaper water available,” she said.

“Santa Barbara ratepayers will be forced to pay for it.”

Haggmark countered that the “cost of desalination has already been incorporated into our (customer) existing rates.”​


Dyer said the Santa Barbara groundwater basins are resting at a historic low and added that it’s expected to take 5 to 10 years to fully recharge them.

“In the near term, it (the basin) can have some partial recovery,” she said. “If we get a couple of normal rainfall years that helps to recharge our groundwater basins.”

Groundwater is produced from two basins, one below the downtown area and the other in the area of Upper State Street.

Both are sitting at 30 percent. By comparison, Dyer said, in 2014 the downtown basin was at 100 percent and the foothill basin was at 80 percent.

Santa Barbara’s water supply also includes imported State Water Project water, recycled water and customer water conservation.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Brooke Holland, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @NoozhawkNews

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.