After five years of the worst drought on record in Santa Barbara County, the only waterfall for miles around is the one gushing out of a pipe at Lake Cachuma, cascading over a mud terrace that used to be underwater.
The waterfall arrived here via the California Aqueduct, and it’s virtually the only supply left anymore in Cachuma, the main reservoir for the county’s South Coast.
The lake last spilled in April 2011 and has dropped now to historical lows.
An inch of rain triggered some natural flow into Cachuma during November storms, but it was largely canceled by evaporation.
On national weather maps, Santa Barbara County is still at ground zero, stuck in a dark brown blob in Central and Southern California labeled “Exceptional Drought.” The forecast is for a La Niña winter — cold and dry.
“I wish we could get enough rain to fill our reservoirs,” said Jayme Laber, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard who provides the local data for those maps. “We just haven’t been able to break that chain.”
Twenty-five years ago, emerging from a four-year drought and heavy rationing, Santa Barbara County residents voted 2-1 to build a 144-mile-long aqueduct branch from Kern County to Lake Cachuma. They were counting on it to save them from profound shortages the next time around.
And so it has — at a price. During the current drought, on average, the state aqueduct has delivered only 37 percent of the water that contractors are entitled to.
To replace the missing supply, or “paper” water, South Coast agencies say they have spent $14 million, amassing a treasure chest of supplemental water from regions with a surplus across California.
That’s on top of $20 million that the South Coast already pays in fixed pipeline costs per year, and more than $2 million per year in delivery costs.
Half of the extra supplies are on loan and must be returned to the sellers in 10 years, creating a substantial “water debt.” And it will cost the South Coast an estimated $2 million in return delivery costs.
“We’re borrowing from the future, no question,” said Dave Davis, a Santa Barbara water commissioner, adding that in 1991, he thought State Water was a terrible idea.
“That said, it did provide the plumbing to move water into this region and get us through a historic drought,” Davis said. “It really came to the rescue.”
Yet over the long term, records show, the State Water Project has been able to deliver only 62 percent of entitlements. The initial allocation for 2017, announced last month by the state Department of Water Resources, is 20 percent.
That’s one reason why the Carpinteria Valley Water District is seeking to sell half its $3 million annual State Water entitlement, potentially to developers, said General Manager Robert McDonald. The district needs funds to turn wastewater into drinking water, he said.
“One of the problems with State Water is its unpredictable delivery,” McDonald said. “If we could sell our State Water, we would use those funds for a local supply.”
During environmental review, the cost of building the aqueduct branch to Cachuma was estimated at $270 million, but it wound up costing $575 million.
Critics say the high cost of the pipeline has delayed a shift toward more permanent conservation and a more resilient water system, one that includes wastewater reclamation and storm water capture.
“This huge investment we made was for practically nothing.” said Arve Sjovold, a retired Santa Barbara research scientist who led the opposition to State Water in 1991.
“I don’t know how they can say it rescued them. The project promised reliable water, and we haven’t gotten it, and we’ve paid dearly for it. We should be trying to get unstuck, rather than getting deeper in.”
Since 2014, the South Coast has purchased 29,100 acre-feet of supplemental water on the “spot” market — a supply large enough to meet the demands of the entire South Coast for a year.
Most of the extra supply comes from Mojave, Kings County, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Santa Maria and the Antelope Valley. Less than 10 percent comes from rice farmers in Butte County.
To date, the South Coast has used up more than half of what it purchased. The rest is in storage, mostly at San Luis Reservoir in Merced County.
Santa Barbara and the Montecito Water District have spent $5.8 million and $6.1 million, respectively, on supplemental water. The Goleta Water District has spent $1.9 million and is poised to buy an additional $375,000 worth of water. The Carpinteria water district has purchased $250,000 worth of supplemental supplies.
The Montecito Water District, serving Summerland and Montecito, a wealthy enclave with a small groundwater basin and a number of large estates, has purchased a larger supply of supplemental water even than Santa Barbara, a city with seven times as many people.
The district pays for the extra supply with penalty fees from customers who exceed their monthly allocations. Within 10 years, the district will have to return more water than what its customers use in a year.
“We’re heavily reliant on State Water,” said Nick Turner, district general manager. “Thankfully, we have the resources. Ideally, it’s going to rain in the next 10 years, our reservoir will fill up again and we are going to be able to repay our debt.”
Data collected by the State Water Resources Control Board show that South Coast conservation varies wildly in the drought, from 210 gallons per capita per day for residential use in Montecito to 93 gallons in the Carpinteria Valley, 72 gallons in Santa Barbara and 54 gallons in the Goleta Valley.
Hypothetically, that means that if residents of Santa Barbara had been as conservationist as Goleta Valley residents for just the past three years, they could have saved nearly $3 million in supplemental water purchases. Carpinteria Valley residents could have saved $250,000.
Art Ludwig, a Santa Barbara gray-water pioneer and the owner of Oasis Design, estimates that if there had been a ban on watering even half of Santa Barbara’s lawns early in the drought, the city would have more than half a year’s supply in Cachuma today. The City Council approved a lawn watering ban on Dec. 6 that goes into effect Jan. 1.
“We’re spending tens of millions on supply without seriously addressing the No. 1 waste of water on the demand side, which is ornamental turf,” Ludwig said. “Our politicians and water managers have been moving towards sustainability as much as they think our culture can take, which is to say, nowhere near enough.
“At this point, only a major culture shift can avoid climate calamity.”
In 1991, in addition to voting for State Water, Santa Barbara residents approved a $34 million desalination plant that was built but never operated, beyond an inaugural run of commemorative bottles. The weather turned wet, State Water came online, and the Goleta Valley and Montecito dropped out as the city’s partners in the project.
A new desalination plant, fast-tracked during the current drought, is scheduled to open on the Santa Barbara waterfront in March, serving both the city and the Montecito Water District. The price tag is $61 million.
“Without State Water, the ‘woulda-coulda’ would have been the ‘desal’ plant,” said Harwood Bendy White Jr., Santa Barbara mayor pro-tem.
“It never would have been mothballed, and would have been kept much more current. The region would have continued its collaboration on that plant, and there would have been much tighter control on growth and agricultural expansion.”
But White, who opposed the aqueduct branch in 1991, said he’s grateful now for the marketing system it provides access to.
“The plumbing is a critical piece, and that was the most successful component of the State Water Project,” he said. “We have been able, even in the driest years, to get water.”
Sjovold couldn’t disagree more.
“State water will never fulfill its promises,” he said. “It was the dumbest damn decision I ever saw.”
— Melinda Burns is a Noozhawk contributing writer.