DRIP, DROP: I’m not looking for any medal or proverbial chest to pin it on, but if we get the rains predicted for this weekend, a little gratitude — a six-pack of Guinness would do nicely — would be very much in order. For the past six weeks, I have been writing ad nauseatingly about the current drought. Unlike other news practitioners, I have not been content to merely report the facts. Instead, what I do falls in the unique category of “voodoo journalism.” My aim has been to tempt the fates to prove me wrong, shut me up, and make me look ridiculous with all my dire, semi-accusatory prognostications of paleo-droughts. Not to brag, but I’ve gone further still, hopping on my fender-free bike at the merest hint of precipitation, risking the all-embarrassing butt-splash to entice errant water molecules to leap from the Pineapple Express onto terra firma.
In the meantime, our local water agencies have been scrambling to catch up. The Montecito Water District lowered the boom on its profligate customers, not only declaring a drought emergency, but enacting water rationing. When you consider that a typical household will still be allowed to use 641 gallons a day for indoor use — not to mention 83,000 gallons annually outside, it sounds more dramatic than it is. (By contrast, a typical Santa Barbara household consumes about 200 gallons a day indoors.) It’s true, many Montecitans live more frugally than this when it comes to water. But some of the big guzzlers are so extravagant that they must have equipped their estates with both moats and rapids. Just three of Montecito’s biggest residential customers use enough to supply 300 Goleta homes. For these, complying with the rationing ordinance will pose a serious challenge. They’ll have to reduce consumption to 20 percent of normal use. If they continue as is, they’ll face penalties of $1.4 million.
In the meantime, most of county water districts have combined forces to buy up to 10,000 acre-feet of somebody else’s water to tide us over. (To put that in perspective, the City of Santa Barbara consumes 14,000 a year.) At best, it’s an iffy proposition. The farmers who have water to sell may be precluded by various jurisdictional hurdles from selling to us; those not strangled by such red tape probably can’t physically move the water through the San Joaquin Delta — the great pinch point in the state’s water-delivery system — which declared ecological bankruptcy in 2007, the same year, coincidentally, that the stock market crashed and the real estate bubble burst. Things, however, may change. But even were we to secure all the water we wanted, it would cost us about $13 million.
A few points bear hammering home. In the first place, we wouldn’t need those 10,000 acre-feet if the five water districts that rely on Lake Cachuma for about half their supplies managed to extricate their collective cranii from their collective recti and bothered to smell the roses. In years past, these agencies operated under an informal but exceedingly practical understanding that when Lake Cachuma dipped below a certain point, they would voluntarily cut back their draw. This was done to make limited supplies last longer and buy time in hopes of rain. Even among the imbecilic and addlepated, this was a no-brainer. This year, however, these agencies have opted to ignore this handshake agreement, allegedly at the instigation of Goleta. Had they followed tradition, however, they would have cut back deliveries by … 10,000 acre-feet. Ain’t that a coincidence! In other words, they blithely pissed away the same amount of water they’re now willing to spend $13 million to buy.
Of that $13 million for additional emergency supplies, the City of Santa Barbara is poised to spend $3.3 million. To put that in perspective, City Hall spends roughly $4 million a year for state water, for which it’s contractually entitled to receive 3,000 acre-feet a year. To put it mildly, the state water system is seriously oversubscribed. If it were an airline, it would sell five tickets for every seat on every plane. As a result, we usually get only a small fraction of our entitlement. But we still have to pay the full price anyway to cover fixed capital costs associated with pipes, pumps, electricity, and chemicals. By contrast, if City Hall were to “fire up” its long moth-balled desalination plant — built in response to the last drought — it could produce 3,000 acre-feet of water a year at the admittedly high price of about $5.5 million a year for a three-year period. (For a longer period, those numbers would change.) Clearly, that’s very expensive. And although the plant is fully permitted, it remains unclear whether the California Coastal Commission would pitch a fit about certain environmental impacts associated with the plant’s admittedly outdated technology.
The really big news about this year’s drought is that the state water system won’t be delivering a drop to Santa Barbara or any of its customers. When you consider City Hall will still be on the hook for its annual $4 million, then maybe the desal plant isn’t as cost-prohibitive as it appears. With desal — in stark contrast to state water — what you pay for is what you actually get. If it’s somewhat more expensive than state water, it’s a lot more reliable. Given that the Montecito Water District is threatening to go dry this summer, perhaps City Hall could tap into the pockets of that district’s frantically desperate, not to mention wealthy, ratepayers to defray some of the costs of starting up the desal plant. Hell, we could probably buy a new plant with just the penalties Montecito will charge water scofflaw water guzzlers.
In the meantime, City Hall is offering its customers a $1,000 rebate to retrofit their backyards into drought-tolerant Gardens of Eden. Preliminary indications suggest it’s working — five condo complexes are now using five acre-feet of water a year less than before. Maybe I’ll hook up, too. But only if I can run Guinness through my sprinklers.