Region enters severe drought, rain forecast for Sunday night
As of Thursday, Santa Barbara County is officially in a state of moderate to severe drought and half the state is in extreme drought conditions, but city officials say Santa Barbara’s water supply is in good shape compared to the last seven-year dry spell.
Water conservation efforts in the community are to thank for that, considering it has been a decade since Lake Cachuma spilled, and it typically spills every three years. The South Coast’s main reservoir is currently at 60.7% capacity, which is a decrease of more than 26,000 acre-feet from last year, according to the county Public Works Department.
During the worst of the drought, around 2016 and 2017, there was less than 25,000 acre-feet of water in the reservoir in total, but supply has increased with small hiccups since then, currently sitting at close to 125,000 acre-feet of water.
Josh Haggmark, the city’s acting public works director, said that the fact that it has been this long without the lake spilling is “unprecedented,” but he remains optimistic about its current state.
“I feel like we’re in a much different place than we were in 2012 and 2013,” he told the News-Press. “We have a community that stepped up and is really doing a fantastic job with water conservation, so that has drastically put us in a different position than we were then.”
Mr. Haggmark said the city is preparing for the worst case scenario, such as conditions similar to 2015, even though rain is expected early next week, according to David Sweet, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard.
Mr. Sweet told the News-Press there’s a 50% chance of rain Sunday afternoon, and the chance increases to 80% to 90% Sunday night. There’s also a 50% chance of rain early Monday.
“There’s still a little bit of doubt about how fast this system will come through,” Mr. Sweet said, adding that some predict the system will pass over quickly in one day, while other models predict the system will linger over the county with a 20% chance of rain into Monday evening. “The rainfall amounts don’t look too impressive, with anywhere from a quarter to half an inch of rain in the lowlands and higher amounts, up to an inch of rain, in the mountains.”
He said meteorologists are looking at equal chances of rain in all parts of the county. In addition, temperatures for the weekend will be cooler with the highs in the 50s and 60s and lows in the 40s, and mostly cloudy conditions.
Thus, despite the incoming drizzle, the city is working on the status update of its water supply, which will be presented to the Santa Barbara City Council in May. Currently, Santa Barbara is in a stage one water supply condition, meaning the water supply is adequate to meet no more than 90% of projected demands. At this time, the city has seven different water sources: Lake Cachuma, recycled water, desalination, Gibraltar/Mission Tunnel, the conservation program, the State Water Project and groundwater.
“We haven’t finished our analysis, but we’ll be taking a look at the groundwater basin,” Mr. Haggmark said. “Certain portions are doing better than others, but we may be able to restore that. We’ll be looking at it holistically to see what we need to do.
“Cachuma’s in bad shape, but the amount of water that’s in Cachuma that belongs to the city right now is significant, and the reason for that is the operations of the desal plant have allowed us to bank that water in Cachuma instead of using that water from Cachuma.”
Santa Barbara has roughly 2.5 years of water from Cachuma alone, he said, which sets the city up well for the coming drought.
The city of Santa Maria began providing 100% groundwater supplies to customers ahead of the drought, but Cathy Taylor, the city of Santa Barbara’s water supply and services manager, told the News-Press that this doesn’t mean the city is “in any dire straits as far as water supply goes.”
“It’s worthy of noting that (Santa Maria) is shifting to groundwater but they’re sitting on multiple years, if not decades, of groundwater they can use,” she said. “They’ve done a good job of managing their water supply.”
Another factor working in Santa Barbara’s favor is the start of construction of the conveyance pipeline project, which could convey 10,000 acre-feet of water annually.
“This will allow us to move desalinated water anywhere in the city, which will be powerful for us should we find ourselves in a fire and need to be able to get water to different parts of the city and not having access potentially to Cachuma or Gibraltar,” Mr. Haggmark said. “We’re continuing to make progress on projects that are going to make our community more resilient and sustainable in the long run.”
Ms. Taylor echoed the confidence in supply should the city experience a wildfire event. She said after the Zaca Fire in 2007, the city had issues with the pre-treatment process but took care of them. In addition, during the last drought, the desal plant was under renovation so it was offline, lessening the water supply. Now, the plant is up and operating.
“We’ve responded to each (drought) and gotten better and better at hardening our water supplies,” she said. “We’re seeing the benefits of that with the three years of water supply we have in Cachuma alone, but again, the community does an amazing job with helping us with their conservation efforts. We look at their conservation efforts as a water supply for us.”
The water supply manager added that, relative to the height of the seven-year drought, the community was conserving 40% of what it was using prior to drought conditions. Today, the city is still conserving approximately 25% of what it was using before the most recent drought.
Mr. Haggmark mentioned the upcoming 3% water rate increase for Santa Barbara residents, and that any time water supply discussions surface, so does the importance of discussing the reasons behind prices. There will be a public meeting on the rate increase Thursday, and the hearing is set for the city council on June 15.
“We’ve tried to put this rate increase off as long as we can, but it really goes into continuing to maintain that infrastructure that’s so vital to delivering water,” he said. “Keep in mind, it’s all connected — our ability to be responsive to climate change, drought and fires is all dependent on continual maintenance of our infrastructure and that’s exactly what’s embedded in those rates.”
To learn more about the city’s water supply, visit the city’s website at santabarbaraca.gov and go to “Water Supply & Drought Planning.”