City of Santa Barbara expresses confidence despite Stage 2 alert
The duration of Santa Barbara’s water shortage alert depends on future state mandates and how much — or how little — it rains this winter.
That’s according to city water officials, who told the News-Press there’s a “high likelihood that a dry winter throughout the state would lead to further statewide action.”
But the city officials say that despite the water shortage alert, there’s a good outlook for local water.
They say the reasons include improved conservation by residents, the diversification of water sources and the reactivation of the city’s desalination plant.
The Santa Barbara City Council declared a Stage 2 water shortage alert on June 21, 2022. While the city stated in July that “Santa Barbara’s water outlook is good, even if extreme dry conditions persist for several years,” the move was made to comply with an executive order issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor directed urban water suppliers to reduce their water use at a time when 95% of the state continues to languish in either severe or extreme drought conditions.
Santa Barbara received 67% of its average winter rainfall for 2022 while Lake Cachuma water levels currently stand at just 41% capacity.
The lake is a primary water source for Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria and Montecito.
But the city predicts it will be able to meet its water demands without shortages for two years even if rainfall levels continue to come in below average.
Under the Stage 2 alert, Santa Barbara residents are being asked to take a variety of actions to reduce their water use. These include using shut-off nozzles on hoses, running sprinklers and other in-ground irrigation systems only between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., and refraining from using hoses to spray down sidewalks and other surfaces unless for safety purposes. The alert also means continuing to follow the statewide ban against watering “non-functional turf grass, turf that is solely ornamental and not regularly used for human recreational purposes or for civic or community events.”
Santa Barbara’s current water use is, on average, 25% lower than it was in 2013 prior to the statewide drought, which is on-par with city water use levels in the 1950s despite the city’s population nearly doubling since then, according to the city.
“I’m proud of the investment our community has made in diversifying our water supply for long-term reliability, and in our community members who have made real lifestyle changes to conserve and use water wisely,” said Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark in a news release. “Our residents and businesses have truly invested in a ‘conservation as a way of life’ approach to water use. But now is the time for all of us to do a little more and be part of the water-saving solution for California.”
In addition to conservation efforts taken by residents, the city points to Santa Barbara’s diversification of its water supply portfolio as a reason for its current good outlook despite the statewide drought.
In the 1980s, Santa Barbara primarily received its water from just three sources: Lake Cachuma, the Gibraltar Reservoir and local groundwater. Since then, the city has expanded its water portfolio to now include locally recycled water, supply from the California State Water Project and desalination.
The 2017 reactivation of the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant, located at 525 E. Yanonali St. in Santa Barbara, has played a key role in shoring up the city’s water supplies. Originally operating for just four months between March and June of 1992, the plant was placed into a long-term standby mode after abundant rainfall levels eased the city out of its water crisis that began in the late 1980s.
Faced with persisting drought conditions, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously in 2015 to update and reactivate the plant at a cost of $72 million. Desalinated water began entering the city’s water system in May 2017, and today produces enough water to satisfy 30% of Santa Barbara’s annual water demand. Water brought in through ocean desalination can also be stored for later use in the Lake Cachuma reservoir.
Going forward, the city is considering a number of steps to secure water supplies from continued and worsening drought conditions. Among them are optimizing and expanding existing water recycling infrastructure, constructing a pipeline to carry water pumped from the Alameda Well to the Ortega Groundwater Treatment Plant, increasing water conservation rebates and resources, commencing additional groundwater pumping, and working with the Central Coast Water Authority to purchase up to 2,000 acre feet of supplemental water.
The city is also in the process of implementing automated water metering infrastructure, which will provide customers with hourly rather than monthly meter reads.
“This more timely information, along with daily patterns of use, will greatly facilitate our customers’ ability to identify and address leaks, thereby helping to avoid billing surprises and reducing water lost due to leaks,” city water officials said in an email to the News-Press.
Santa Barbara officials plan to continue to update residents on the current water shortage alert and the city’s ongoing efforts through news releases, weekly and quarterly e-newsletters, messages and inserts in customers’ water bills. The city is also partnering with organizations to educate residents on conservation opportunities.
For more information, go to santabarbaraca.gov/water.