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For now, Lake Cachuma has plenty of water in it — thanks to heavy January rainfall. (Santa Barbara County Public Works Department photo)

[Editor’s note: As Californians, we’re used to dealing with a dry climate and the threat of drought. While state officials from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on down have been sounding the alarm on water shortages, the South Coast response has been more muted and seemingly less urgent. To help Noozhawk readers understand what it means for them, we had our staff wade into the issue. First in a series. Click here for the second installment. Click here for the third installment. Click here for the fourth installment.]

Southern California has always been an arid place, but these times are particularly dry, and the water forecast across the Golden State is grim.

However, thanks to the gigantic rain catcher known as Lake Cachuma, the state water woes have largely bypassed the South Coast — for now.

How long will the good times last? That depends mostly on the rain, because the man-made miracle known as the State Water Project, which transports water south from Northern California on a highway of a canal known as The California Aqueduct, can’t be relied upon, local water experts say. And the last six months in Santa Barbara have been unusually dry.

This year, the State Water Project has been plagued by a confluence of unfortunate circumstances. A two-year dry spell has prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a statewide drought. A court order to protect fish such as the endangered delta smelt has constricted the amount of state water that can be extracted from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Hotter-than-usual temperatures have melted snowpacks in the Sierra Nevada too rapidly to turn much of the runoff into usable water.

In cities like Agoura Hills and Calabasas in Los Angeles County, it’s illegal for residents to hose down their driveways, or for restaurants to serve customers a glass of water unless they ask for it. In Oakland, water rates rose by 10 percent in early July.

But on the South Coast, despite the bone-dry conditions of the past six months, the alarm bells, with few exceptions, have been silent.

Our relative good standing can be explained in no small part by a freakish spell of January rain that filled the South Coast’s primary reservoir — Cachuma — to the brim. To this day, it remains virtually full.

“That will keep (most of the South Coast) from really being in bad shape for some time,” said Bill Brennan, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority. “It will protect the South Coast usually through five years of a drought.”

That means the lake currently contains at least three years’ worth of water, because California is officially in its second year of drought, he added. (Santa Barbara County is not experiencing an official drought.)

But some local water experts warn against complacency, saying the troubles at the State Water Project aren’t going away anytime soon.

“The delta smelt is just a harbinger of things to come,” said Arve Sjovold, a Santa Barbaran who sits on the board of Water For California, a nonprofit organization that focuses on conservation. “It’s not an isolated, freakish event. As far as I know, they’re not even close to remediating the Delta.”

What’s more, he said, the dry years are too frequent to ensure reliable deliveries.

“We have to conserve water down here,” Sjovold said. “The most effective way is to price it higher.”

The State Water Program began in the 1950s, when it became apparent that the water aquifers in the parched climes of Southern California would not be sufficient to serve the booming communities in the aftermath of World War II. Designed by the state Department of Water Resources, the system serves drinking water to some 23 million people.

The project’s most stunning feature might be the California Water Aqueduct, a 444-mile-long stretch of man-made channel that transports water to Lake Perris east of Anaheim from the Sacramento San-Joaquin Delta. (San Diego gets most of its water from the Colorado River, not the State Water Project.)

Luckily, most of the water agencies on the South Coast — with exception of the districts serving Montecito and Hope Ranch — do not rely heavily upon the state program for their water, drawing just a small percentage from it for their total supply.

But there’s no telling when the next local drought will hit.

The Rainfall Factor

Officials note that the January downpour has been sandwiched between two remarkably dry spells.

The past five months have witnessed a return to the near desert-like conditions that characterized 2006-07 water year — the driest in more than 100 years for the city of Santa Barbara.

On average, the city of Santa Barbara receives about 19 inches of rainfall annually, said Bill Ferguson, the city’s water resources supervisor. In January, cloudy skies drenched the downtown area with a whopping 11 inches — three times the average for that month. From February on, however, rainfall has been next to nil: two inches, when by the law of averages it should have been at least nine. This means the city, despite the January dousing, will probably experience less-than-average rainfall for the water year ending Sept. 30, unless it rains an unusual amount over the next two months.

The main barometer for drought in Santa Barbara is not rainfall amounts, but the water levels in Cachuma, Ferguson said.

When full — as it nearly is now — Cachuma holds about 188,000 acre-feet of water. Ferguson said city staff usually doesn’t recommend that the Santa Barbara City Council declare a drought until the level begins to approach 100,000 acre-feet, as it nearly did in late 2004, just before heavy January rains knocked this area out of the red-alert status for drought, and triggered landslides such as the one that killed 10 people in La Conchita. The city hasn’t declared an official drought since 1990.

Ferguson said it usually takes two or three dry years for the water levels to sink that low. (Click here to see daily monitors of Cachuma’s level.)

On the Supply Side

For now, the water supplies of most South Coast cities are fine. As a result, with the exception of the Montecito district, no drastic plans for ensuring conservation have been floated, save a voluntary countywide campaign — called the 20 Gallon Challenge — asking for a pledge from residents to reduce their water use.

Sitting prettiest are Santa Barbara and Goleta, which both enjoy the luxury of possessing a fairly diverse array of water sources that include Cachuma, the Gibraltar Reservoir on the Santa Ynez River, recycled water, the State Water Project and underground aquifers.

Goleta, in particular, has benefited from good timing. Late last year — shortly before the State Water Project put severe restrictions on the annual allotment for local water districts — the district regained its ability to draw water from a vast underground aquifer that it hadn’t been able to touch for about a decade.

“We’re lucky — we are really lucky,” Bert Bertrando, a board member with the Goleta Water District, said of the district’s access to the aquifer known as the Central Basin, which lies beneath most of the Goleta Valley.

Worst hit have been the Montecito Water District and La Cumbre Water Co., which serves the Hope Ranch area. These districts have been beset by record levels of demand for water by their customers, who in dry times tend to have outsized irrigation needs for large yards.

In response, the Montecito district has raised its water rates in a way that steepens the per-unit charge for heavy users, and La Cumbre may follow suit.

The shortages are exacerbated by how both districts rely heavily on the troubled State Water Project. In Montecito, the over-reliance stems from the district’s shortage of ground water. In La Cumbre, it owes to how the district — for reasons that elude even its current general manager — severed ties with the Cachuma project in the late 1960s. (The district gets a full 60 percent of its water from the state. By comparison, just 4 percent of Santa Barbara’s water typically comes from the state.)

In Montecito, the shortages have been invoked by opponents of two high-profile development battles: the struggle over Rick Caruso’s proposal to rebuild the shuttered-up Miramar Hotel, and a project to replace a Coast Village Road gas station with condominiums.

In both cases, Montecito district general manager Tom Mosby has said he can and will provide service.

The water concerns came close to derailing the Miramar development. In early August, the Montecito Planning Commission decided the project required a subsequent partial Environmental Impact Report focused on the water supply — a move Caruso had called unnecessary. The commission reversed itself last week, however, after the water district board adopted a tiered rate structure that discourages heavy water use.

The Coast Village Road Gateway Project, meanwhile, triggered a new water policy. As a result of the project at 1298 Coast Village Road, the district’s board in April approved Ordinance 89, which imposes a limit on the amount of water that can be drawn by new or extended developments, although the ordinance does not apply to the Gateway development.

Mosby said the district was able to dodge a bullet this year by purchasing a large amount of excess water from elsewhere in California. But he added that such an option might not be available next year, and that Montecito needs to better embrace conservation.

In the meantime, if relief from the water shortages doesn’t come in 2008, Mosby said the district may declare a water shortage emergency, which could lead to an outright moratorium on new water connections.

“Unless we can find water to alleviate that deficit, there’s a very, very, very good chance the board will go ahead and declare a water shortage emergency,” he said.

Drought Response

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the practice of freezing development on account of water shortages was common on the South Coast. It occurred in Santa Barbara roughly during the years of the drought of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. It happened in Goleta from the 1970s to the mid-‘90s, and in Montecito from 1973 to 1993.

This was before any of the region’s districts became part of the State Water Project, which tends to offer a sense of security: If the rain doesn’t fall down here, we’ll get the water piped in from up there.

In the 1990s, following the trauma of the drought, residents of all of the South Coast water districts voted in separate elections to sign up for state water. One district — Carpinteria — overdid it, ordering exorbitant amounts, and so to this day spends much of its time managing an ironic surplus of water during a statewide drought.

Carpinteria has dealt with its predicament by taking actions in recent years to sell off a good portion of its state water to other users in the Santa Barbara area. It also recently began storing much of its excess water in Kern County. The deal doesn’t cost Carpinteria any money, but it does cost water: for every two gallons it stores, it can take just one gallon back.

Carpinteria Valley Water District general manager Charlie Hamilton said it is worth it because when the city forgoes its state water allotment on any given year, it forfeits it for good.

Santa Barbara voters reacted to the drought of the late 1980s not only by deciding to join the State Water Project, but also to advise the city to build a desalination plant that can convert salt water to drinking water. The plant hasn’t been fired up since 1992, and back then was operated only briefly, providing some water to downtown-area customers as a test. Last month, the City Council authorized a study to determine how much repair work needs to be done to get the plant back up and running, Ferguson said.

The city of Santa Barbara also launched a successful campaign to curb demand, mostly through a pricing system that boosts the per-unit charge for heavy users, but also through other incentives.

Nevertheless, demand is nonetheless beginning to creep up again.

After the drought, the city’s annual water use plummeted to below 10,000 acre-feet from about 16,300 acre-feet. But demand since then has risen back to about 15,000 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the volume of water sufficient to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.

Another potential trouble zone for Santa Barbara is the Gibraltar Reservoir. For decades, it has been gathering silt through erosion, decreasing the reservoir’s storage capacity to about 7,000 acre-feet in 2007 from 8,000 in 1988. Now, officials worry that the 2007 Zaca Fire has accelerated the process by stripping the terrain of the vegetation necessary to keep the sediment from getting swept into the reservoir by rainfall. A study on the matter will be released in the next month or so, Ferguson said.

Meanwhile, Goleta’s complicated water woes date back to the 1960s and ‘70s.

In the 1960s, the district overdrew from the vast Central Basin aquifer, to the fury of farmers and other landowners, who sued in 1972. It took until 1989 for a decision to come down. In Wright v. Goleta Water District, a judge put restrictions on the amount the district could take out.

The district took this as a signal that it needed state water to ensure a healthy supply.

In 1991, the Goleta district appealed to its voters for permission to tap into the State Water Project, and as a condition for passage promised to restore the aquifer to its level in 1972 — the year the Wright suit was filed.

The voters approved the ballot measure, called the SAFE Water ordinance. Once the district started receiving state water, in 1997, it not only stopped drawing out of the aquifer, but actually started pumping water into it. In 2007, the district’s directors announced they’d finally restored the aquifer to 1972 levels.

This year, just in time to make up for state shortages, the district is starting to draw sizable amounts of water from the aquifer, Bertrando said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at