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SB Authors: Geologist Tells a Cautionary Tale in a Fascinating History of South Coast Water

By Melinda Burns

Mike Hoover, a Santa Barbara geologist, wants to remind us of the Medieval Drought, the epic dry period that held California and the West in its grip for 400 years, beginning in 950 AD.

“That thing was really bad,” says Hoover, who mentions the mega-disaster in his new book, Drought & Flood: The History of Water in Santa Barbara and Montecito.-- So bad, he says, that it may have led to malnutrition and warfare among the prehistoric Chumash.

“I keep telling people, ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,’” Hoover said in a recent interview. “We’ve been in an abnormally wet cycle in the last three or four hundred years, and that’s changing now. Climate change will amplify the ongoing trend to dryness.”

During his career, Hoover oversaw the drilling of 300 wells, largely for private landowners from Goleta to Montecito, claiming a success rate of 90 percent. His book, though, catalogues the much more difficult, not as successful, and usually tardy, efforts of South Coast residents, beginning in the 1780s, to develop public water supplies in the face of drought and population growth.

“We never do what we need to do until the crisis is upon us,” Hoover said. “We’re always late to the party.”

Paucity and atmospheric rivers. The Santa Ynez River, the main source of water for Santa Barbara and Montecito, flows only a few weeks or months every year. As Hoover shows and every local knows, the weather can veer from a “pattern of paucity” and dried-up reservoirs, to “atmospheric rivers” and biblical floods.

Drought & Flood tells how, in the wake of a prolonged drought, the Franciscan missionaries used Chumash labor to build a dam upstream from the Mission in 1806, in what is now the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

In the same way, severe droughts prompted the construction of the Juncal Dam in the headwaters of the Santa Ynez (a good location); Sheffield Dam near Highway 192 (a bad location: it collapsed in the 1925 earthquake); and Gibraltar Dam, downstream of Juncal and Mono Creek (a bad location: the reservoir is filling with mud.)

“They tried and tried and tried to haul the silt out and put it somewhere else, but that was not cost-efficient,” Hoover said of Gibraltar. “It’s a remote area.”

In the drought of 1944 to 1951, the driest in local recorded history, county voters approved the construction of the Bradbury Dam downstream of Gibraltar, creating Lake Cachuma.

“Every time they built a dam, they were sure it was the last one they’d ever have to build,” Hoover said.

The state water debacle. Shell-shocked by drought a few decades later, the voters looked to northern California for a new water supply, approving bonds in 1991 for a 144-mile-long pipeline from the state aqueduct in Kern County to Lake Cachuma. The cost, originally estimated at $270 million, ballooned to $575 million by the time the project was finished.

Simultaneously, Santa Barbara voters approved the construction of a $30 million desalination plant on the city’s waterfront. The plant was mothballed (remember the “March Miracle” rains of 1991?), then rebuilt for $72 million in 2017, during the recent seven-year drought. This summer, with the memory of rationing still fresh, Montecitans signed up for a 50-year supply of city water and agreed to pay nearly half the cost of the desalination plant.

“We should have said ‘no’ to state water,” Hoover said.

Opponents of the city’s deal with Montecito said the desalination plant was energy-intensive, harmful to marine life and was intended to run only in emergencies, not year-round. Montecito, they said, could have imported extra supplies of water through the aqueduct from around the state to weather future droughts, just as it did in recent years.

But Hoover views the aqueduct branch to Cachuma as “probably one of the biggest mistakes we made here.”

“I’m not in favor of moving water from one watershed to another,” he said. “We’ve got a crisis in our fishery in the Sacramento River, and we’re shipping water hundreds of miles to places that are perfectly able to build a desalination plant.”

State water, Hoover notes, is far more expensive than desalinated water, considering that historically, the South Coast has used only 30 percent of its state water allocation, yet ratepayers still must pay the fixed costs of the aqueduct branch.

No matter if it’s a wet year, and there’s no need for state water, or there’s a drought, and the state cuts allocations, the aqueduct bills are due – more than an annual $5 million each for Santa Barbara and Montecito.

Hoover ends his book with a prediction that desalination, wastewater reuse and the use of ground water as a drought buffer will be the region’s most reliable future water sources. Bucking conventional wisdom, he argues that water conservation “has run its course.”

“One can only put so many bricks in the toilet,” he writes.

A local effort. For this reporter, who has covered water in Santa Barbara County for 35 years, Drought & Flood deftly pulls together local water history, science and data from multiple sources into one handy reference book.

But the book is a primer for lay readers, too. It’s just 100 pages long, with many full-page maps, charts and historical photos, including the Santa Barbara Airport with its runways underwater in 1967; and a shot of the workers who battled methane gas and cave-ins to build the Tecolote Tunnel connecting Cachuma to the South Coast in 1956.

Hoover touches on disasters such as the cattle die-off and collapse of South Coast ranching during the Great Drought of 1862 to 1864. He includes some of the quirks of local geology, including the sulfur-rich hot springs above Montecito and the natural cistern that waters the greens at the Birnam Wood Golf Club on East Valley Road.

There are chapters on floods, wildfires and the catastrophic debris flow of Jan. 9, 2018, in Montecito. Lesser-known events get a mention, too – the longest drought (1918 to 1934), rainiest day (eight inches on Jan. 10, 1995) and wettest year in Santa Barbara (47 inches in the winter of 1997 to 1998).

Hoover also untangles the maze of private water companies that have come and gone here. One still in operation after more than 100 years is the Montecito Creek Water Company, a group of estate owners who draw water from Hot Springs Creek.

Acknowledging mentors. Drought & Flood was a local effort and is dedicated to Art Sylvester and Donald Weaver, the UCSB geology professors, now emeritus, who gave Hoover his start in the field, 50 years ago. Sylvester, Hoover said, edited the book and “hacked my stuff up,” treating him like a student of 19 again.

The book is also dedicated to the Montecito Water District board and general manager who hired Hoover as a consultant from 1980 to 1985. They were, he said, “the most logical, rational and practical group” he ever worked for – although Henry Muller, the late Carol Valentine, and then-General Manager Chuck Evans later became ardent supporters of state water.

Hoover said Evans saw a draft of the book and told him he “really should soften” his criticism of state water. But Muller, now 103 years old, called to say he liked the book so much, he was reading it for the second time.

David Wilk, an Ojai editor, wrote parts of some chapters. Erin Graffy, a Santa Barbara author, provided art direction and historical research and published the book.

Drought & Flood is available in a $25 hardback edition and a $20 paperback at the Tecolote Book Shop in Montecito, Chaucer’s Books in Santa Barbara, and Hoover’s website,

Community spirit. Net proceeds will be donated to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Nature Conservancy – Santa Cruz Island, UCSB Department of Earth Sciences, and Raccoon Point Charitable Trust Scholarship Fund, a fund that Hoover created on Orcas Island, Wash., the other community he calls home.

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service. She offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

Images: Cover of "Drought and Flood"; A flood in 1967 swamped the Santa Barbara Airport (Jim Stubchaer); The Sheffield Dam broke in the earthquake of 1925, flooding Santa Barbara with 30 million gallons of water (Edson Smith Collection, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives); Workers cool down during construction of the Tecolote Tunnel in 1955 by (Santa Barbara Library Edson Smith Collection); Mike Hoover (Melinda Burns).

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