Cachuma lake at 39 percent capacity (Jan.9, 2014)

Paul Wellman

Cachuma lake at 39 percent capacity (Jan.9, 2014)

Speed of Drought Confounds Water Planners

Agencies Gamble on Need and Price

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
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About two weeks ago, three South Coast water agencies — desperate to augment supplies in the face of a withering drought — combined forces to place a bid on surplus State Water from purveyors in Madera County. They offered what they thought at the time was an extravagant amount: $1,600 an acre-foot. They didn’t come close. The winning bid weighed in at a staggering $2,200 per acre-foot, and the three thirsty water districts, Montecito, Santa Barbara and Solvang, came up empty.

The scramble to secure additional water supplies — especially urgent for the Montecito district whose managers have warned about “going dry by July” — is proving problematic at best. Although the water agencies making up the Central Coast Water Authority — the entity responsible for importing State Water to the South Coast — has just hired an independent water broker to find rice farmers who might make more money selling water than raising a crop, their path is anything but clear. In an ideal world, they’re hoping to secure 10,000 additional acre-feet of water. To put that in perspective, the City of Santa Barbara uses about 14,000 a year. As a matter of law and reality, however, it’s uncertain whether anyone will be allowed to ship any water drawn from rivers north of California’s infamously challenged San Joaquin Delta — an environmental black hole caused by the years of over-pumping. And nobody south of the Delta has any water to sell.

Making this conundrum crueler yet, it turns out the Goleta Water District sold 4,000 acre-feet of its excess State Water just nine months ago and at one-tenth the price the Madera agencies got. Montecito managed to snag 707 acre-feet, and Solvang jumped in for 600, but the vast majority of the water was sold to agencies throughout the state. Making such long-distance sales possible in this case is the same network of pipes and pumps that brought California’s escalating water crisis to critical mass this year: the State Water system. For the first time ever, managers of the State Water system announced this December that they would not provide any water to any customers at all. It was unprecedented, and water agencies hovering on the edge of sustainability suddenly found their gap between supply and demand unbridgeable.

In hindsight, the sale might seem terminally short sighted, but according to Dave Matson, assistant manager of the Goleta Water District, it made plenty of sense when it was consummated last June. Then, the Lake Cachuma reservoir was nearly twice as full as it is today. And the district had 7,000 acre-feet of State Water in storage in the San Luis Reservoir, located in California’s Central Valley, well beyond the 4,000 acre-foot drought buffer district water planners aim for. At that time, Matson said, Goleta hadn’t used any of its State Water entitlements for several years. The more pressing fear, he said, was that the San Luis Reservoir might actually spill — the way Cachuma did in 2011 — and Goleta would have no claim on any water going over the dam. No one ever dreamed the State Water system would effectively go dry. “Beyond the twenty-twenty of hindsight, the deal has to be evaluated based on the specific factors at the time,” Matson said. “And at that time, it made sense.”

By today’s standards, however, $253 an acre-foot doesn’t qualify as chump change; if Goleta were to sell the same water today, at today’s prices, it could make $8 million. Last June, the district made a little over $1 million. According to Darlene Beirig of the Montecito Water District, the district grabbed a massive amount of water in 2013 in anticipation of a possible shortfall. The district, she said, secured 3,881 acre-feet on supplemental supplies. But, like Matson, she said the fear was more that the reservoirs might spill. “It’s always a delicate balance,” she explained. “If we were to buy too much water and it rained, you risk the possibility of the dam spilling and losing your water.”

Perhaps Tom Fayram of the Santa Barbara County Water Agency put it best, quoting former baseball sage Yogi Berra: “The problem with predictions,” Fayram said, “is that they involve the future.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Well, the future, as in late 2014, may see the return of an El Nino.

Will California be prepared for it, as one commentator noted in the post at the link below "Yes, hell coming to breakfast in Cali, fixing their drought with a sledgehammer."

Possibly, CA should look very carefully in the next several months at doing something about storing more water - in storms, there is a great deal that goes pouring into the ocean. Too bad Goleta Slough was filled in for the airport - it was a natural water storage area for water streaming down from the mountains.

Possibly those in Montecito that can afford to do so, should change vast expanses of lawn into underground water storage. Don't procrastinate - plan to be self-sufficient and not reliant on others and needing vast sums of money to buy water.

Remove the trucked in soil at old OMGC and allow water to fill what was one a vast area of water storage - if not for human consumption, but for wildlife and to minimize flooding in surrounding areas. Ignorant humans destroyed 90% of wetland areas, that provide excellent buffers in the time of extreme weather and huge storms. That is what happened in Hurricane Katrina - destroyed wetlands would have provided a buffer to limit damage.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 1:12 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The Goleta Water District has gone from an agency that protected the public it serves to an agency that promotes unlimited growth at the expensive of the public. One has to ask, why no moratorium? Why the approval of a 12 inch water main out on the Gaviota Coast to a two mansion development with 10 more on the drawing board? The lust for growth has infected our County decision makers including the Goleta Water Board.

dontoasthecoast (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 8:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Why would the GWD want a moratorium? Promoting growth means more employees, higher pay, etc. Since they've got enough water to sell at cut rates, why should they care!

As for Montecito, no sympathy. Their per capita use is huge compared with the rest of the county. They've known they are dependent on Cachuma and State Water - except for those individuals allowed (by the MWD?) to have their own wells, drawing on the community groundwater.

It will be interesting to see if they do cut back voluntarily or if instead, they push intently on Santa Barbara to restart the desal. plant. (If so, they should pay for all $20 million of it or else a formula sharing with SB, credit given to the city for the use of its land.) Alternatively, they could push on Caruso to use part of his Miramar property for a desal plant serving the MWD.

Fascinating link in Tabatha's above, Really clarifies the world picture of the developing el Niño. Thanks for it!

at_large (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 9:29 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yeah, there is way too much development going on in Goleta right now for this drought situation. Not only will these new projects need water after completion, but it takes a lot of water for the projects themselves. Granted, when the projects were passed no one could have forecast this situation, but I think that when people come to the boards with new projects it needs to be more thought out about how they will contribute to fixing the problem rather than making it worse.

bimboteskie (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 11:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

bimboteskie, I agreed with your comment on the S.B.H.S. Dawns, but please: "...when the projects were passed no one could have forecast this situation..." Many of us warned for decades that the SWP was a pipe dream, promising plenty of water when water's plentiful but delivering little or none when it's needed. The last prolonged drought, and a well-financed campaign by the water buffaloes, stampeded most electorates to throw many tens of millions of dollars at the parched pipeline, except for the enlightened residents of the Lompoc Valley who just said "No, thanks" to that hollow promise.

As for the desal plant, it's OK for drinking but don't irrigate with it: the residual sodium (measured by the SAR, or "sodium adsorption ratio"), very well might kill plants and poison the soil for years. (See, e.g., .) And, it's mighty expensive stuff.

Groundwater reserves will carry us through, based upon past experience. However, don't ever believe those who see water only through money-tinted glasses.

GregMohr (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 1:59 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over." Who still has a souvenir bottle of SB Desal water hanging around? Give it a good shake and watch all the detritus swirl around.

discoboy (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2014 at 5:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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