DRIP, DROP: Better to praise the light, I am told, than to curse the darkness. In that vein, I rejoice in the rain we got this Sunday. Admittedly, it wasn’t much. More like some really exuberant dew. But in the middle of a capital-D drought, we need to be thankful for anything that resembles raindrops. Hydrologically, however, the event was utterly insignificant. But no longer can we say that this is only the fourth time since 1867 that absolutely no rain has fallen in the month of January. Back then, by the way, cows resorted to eating trees, and the sound of an ax biting into wood was sufficient to trigger a stampede. We aren’t there. Not yet.
The good news, of course, is that we have wisely cultivated way more diversified water supplies and now plan for droughts every six years. The bad news is that none of our projections contemplated the eventuality of three consecutive parched years and that one would be the driest in state history. Our six-year planning cycles now seem about two years behind reality. Scrambling to keep up, the City of Santa Barbara will declare a Stage I Drought Alert next week. Though that’s sooner than initially planned, it seems a belated acknowledgment of the obvious. To reacquaint myself with the byzantine intricacies of water planning, I crashed the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB) meeting this Monday and was rendered epileptically dyslexic by the blizzard of acronyms spewed forth. A team of engineers explained how they’ll design, build, operate, and maintain (known in the parlance as “DBOM,” by the way) an emergency pumping station on Lake Cachuma at the ballpark price of about $4 million. When the water level falls beneath the reservoir’s intake valves, those pumps will be necessary to get the water into the tunnel and off to customers.
But I was most struck by what no one was talking about.
Right now, Lake Cachuma holds only about a year-and-a-half’s worth of supply for the five water agencies — from Carpinteria to Santa Ynez — holding straws in the water. Traditionally, when Cachuma drops to half full, the member agencies have had an “understanding” that they’d voluntarily reduce their draws by 20 percent. We passed that mark a while ago. And when the reservoir drops lower than the 80,000 acre-feet mark, the “understanding” was that the member agencies would reduce their take by 40 percent. We have now descended below the 80,000 acre-foot mark, and apparently nobody understands each other anymore. I say that because neither the 20 percent reduction nor the 40 percent reduction has taken place. That’s cause for alarm. The odd agency out, apparently, is the Goleta Water District, which, for a host of reasons real and suspected, is not willing to cut back. Goleta customers, we are told, have already sacrificed by conserving far more than customers at other water districts and are paying through the nose. Why should they cut back — and spend more to use other, more expensive supplies — so that profligate water wasters in Montecito (where $8,000 monthly water bills are not unheard of) can keep their polo pastures a pristine emerald green? If Goleta won’t slow down, then the other districts figure they’d be damn fools to do so on their own.
The amount of water that could be saved for another day is hardly insignificant. A 40 percent reduction is roughly the equivalent 10,000 acre-feet, which is more than 70 percent of what the City of Santa Barbara uses in a year. Players with the various water agencies refer to this previous understanding as a “handshake agreement.” Maybe so, but it’s also more than that. When COMB renewed its contract with the federal Bureau of Reclamation — which originally built and still owns Lake Cachuma — 10 years ago, that “understanding” was written into the environmental impact report.
One thing making this drought different is that we are now hooked up to the state water system, and we pay a lot — $54 million a year — for the privilege. To the extent water agencies like Goleta think they can go it alone because of state water, they should think twice. For the first time in history, it’s possible that the state water system will deliver zero percent of the water allocations to which its member agencies are contractually entitled. The best-case scenario is that we could get 5 percent. Those numbers are unduly alarming, we have been assured by Ray Stokes of the Central Coast Water Authority, the face of state water in Santa Barbara. Because he and the member agencies had the wisdom and foresight to store a portion of the state water we could have gotten last year — known in the parlance as carryover — in the San Luis Reservoir, we might have access to 39 percent of the water we pay for. That’s about 13,500 acre-feet. The trick, however, is getting that water from the San Luis Reservoir to Lake Cachuma. Technically, that’s a simple matter. But legally, it may prove a lot harder than it looks. It turns out that the San Luis Reservoir is extremely low right now and there are far more competing claims on its limited supplies than there are water molecules to satisfy them. According to recent news reports emanating from the Central Valley, the 8,000-pound gorilla may be the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which seems to think it has first dibs on the carryover water it thought it had stored in the reservoir for just this eventuality. Stokes has assured me this is definitely not the case and that our carryover supplies in San Luis are contractually bulletproof. Ray knows a lot more than I do, but until push comes to shove and a judge says he’s right, I’m holding my breath. In the meantime, maybe our water agencies should try harder to cooperate. If they don’t, we could all wind up chomping on trees.