The wet winter of 2017 is a distant memory as Santa Barbara County, like a thirsty desert survivor, staggers into its eighth year of drought.
As of this month, the water level at Lake Cachuma, once the main water supply for the South Coast and Santa Ynez Valley, has dropped back to 31 percent of capacity. That is the same mark the reservoir hit in October 2014, on the way down to a record low of 7 percent in October 2016.
“I think the dry conditions have just worn everybody out,” said Chris Dahlstrom, general manager for Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District No. 1, one of five agencies that draw from Cachuma. “It would be a great thing to get a good winter.”
Yet no rain is forecast through Thanksgiving.
A weak-to-moderate El Niño condition developing in the equatorial Pacific Ocean may not hold much promise for Southern California, said Eric Boldt, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
“Right now, it doesn’t look very favorable for a wet year,” he said, “but there’s still some time to reverse course.”
Water is for fightin' over. As the drought drags on, it’s not surprising that a dispute is simmering over allocations from the lake for the South Coast and Santa Ynez Valley.
For now, the county has prevailed with a gradualist approach that releases some water now for sure and some in the spring … maybe.
“When we get down to the bottom of the barrel here and we’re counting drops, we’ve got to be very careful,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of county Public Works. “We’re making sure the water’s there before we allocate it. It’s very logical: we don’t want to come up short.”
Fayram has not forgotten what happened in 2013, when Cachuma levels dropped below the halfway mark on the heels of one of the driest years on record.
Back then, following the Goleta Water District’s lead, the water agencies broke with past practice and failed to take a voluntary 20 percent cut in their allocations for the next water year. As the drought deepened, their allocations for 2014-2015 were cut by 55 percent. In 2015-2016, they got zero allocations from the lake.
But water managers who must answer to the drought-fatigued residents of Santa Barbara, Montecito and the Goleta, Carpinteria and Santa Ynez valleys are frustrated by what they view as an excess of caution.
“All of the purveyors are on the same page, but we can’t seem to find a common ground with the county,” said John McInnes, general manager of the Goleta Water District, the single largest user of Cachuma water. “It makes for a difficult discussion when we’re already so hard-pressed for water supply to meet the needs of our customers. There’s water sitting in the lake and it’s not being released.”
The shrinking lake. In some ways, the South Coast is in a worse fix today than in 2014, even though a supply of desalinated water is now online in Santa Barbara. Levels of ground water – the ultimate drought reserve – are at historical lows and dropping as a result of heavy well pumping in recent years.
In addition, agencies in Montecito, Santa Barbara and the Carpinteria and Goleta valleys have taken on substantial water debt by buying additional supplies of state aqueduct water from districts around California. As part of the deal, they must return an equal amount of water to those districts within 10 years.
The dispute over Cachuma water began last summer, when the water agencies unanimously asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the owner and operator of the Bradbury Dam, for 40 percent of their normal allocations for the water year that runs from October 2018 through September 2019.
“The water agencies pay for and operate Cachuma and are experts in water supply,” Bob McDonald, general manager of the Carpinteria Valley Water District said last week.
“We have the history of the lake with very little rain and in wet periods. We project what the evaporation demands will be, and the releases downstream. We did all the modeling to show that this was a reasonable allocation," he added.
But the county, which holds the master water service contract for the Cachuma Project with the Bureau, did its own analysis and came up with a more conservative recommendation, which it forwarded to the Bureau along with the agencies’ request: Either cut the allocations to zero for the entire water year, the county’s Fayram advised, or adopt a two-step approach, allocating 20 percent now and 20 percent in the spring, depending on how much remains in the lake after the winter.
When the Bureau sided with Fayram’s two-step recommendation, the water managers cried foul.
“I’m not okay with the role the county is playing,” McDonald said.
McInnes said that the cutback to 20 percent of allocations – at least for now – would force the district to continue longstanding Stage 3 drought restrictions for Goleta Valley customers. These rules generally prohibit outside watering more than two days per week or between the hours of 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.
“This is a lifeline resource we’re talking about,” McInnes said. “We are trying to determine if the county has been acting in the purveyors’ best interest.”
Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara water resources manager, said the cutback “means more costs to our ratepayers to address our water shortage and increased groundwater pumping.” Santa Barbara’s Stage 3 restrictions, like Goleta’s, limit the hours of outside irrigation.
Montecito weighs in. In Montecito, Jameson Lake has been offline since the Thomas Fire. Seventy percent of the community’s water supply is imported from the state aqueduct.
It’s harder to plan for the future without knowing exactly how much will be available from Cachuma, said Doug Morgan, a member of the Montecito Water District board. Regarding the county’s recommendation, he said, “I think it was an overreach of their responsibility.”
There are many competing demands on Cachuma beyond the allocations for South Coast residents.
Water from the lake must be released yearly for endangered steelhead trout and downstream users, such as Lompoc Valley farmers. A “minimum pool” must be reserved to keep the lake alive. In addition, the water agencies are storing a large “carryover” account at Cachuma, made up of unused portions of their allocations from previous years.
Finally, huge losses to evaporation must be taken into account – more in warm and windy weather, and less as the lake gets smaller.
Fayram believes it is the county’s responsibility to take a long-term view of Cachuma’s supply.
“If you end up with an overdrawn lake, who’s going to make up that water?” he said.
Melinda Burns is an environmental journalist based in Santa Barbara.
Images: Recent image of Cachuma (Melinda Burns); Cachuma in happier days (countyofsb.org); Jameson Lake in happier days (sboutdoors.com); Melinda Burns.