Santa Barbara’s weekend showers, however tantalizing, did nothing to alleviate the extreme drought now gripping the South Coast and much of the state. Given February’s unseasonably warm weather — with temperatures in the 80s predicted later this week — any rain falling on Lake Cachuma evaporated almost upon impact, and no runoff was generated into Santa Barbara’s most important reservoir. While some federal forecasters are still predicting a wetter-than-average winter, area water managers say that’s not enough to overcome the last three years of dryness.
The punch line for the City of Santa Barbara Water Commission, which met Monday, is that a Stage III emergency will likely be declared this May, meaning more restrictive rules will be enacted and new enforcement measures will go into effect. And barring the miraculous intervention of torrential rains, City Hall appears poised to pull the $42 million trigger to reactivate its dormant desalination plant sometime this June. The fate of the facility was the subject of intense discussion by longtime water commissioner Russell Ruiz, who expressed doubts the proposed reactivation would sail unmolested through the Coastal Commission hearing scheduled this Friday in Pismo Beach, despite the $165,000 City Hall spent on lobbying efforts.
Ruiz also took exception with Santa Barbara attorney and Regional Water Quality Control Boardmember Jeff Young, who voted to impose tougher environmental conditions on the desal plant at a hearing two weeks ago. Area appointees to the water board — as well as the Coastal Commission — who don’t support the Santa Barbara community need to feel the “political ramifications” of their vote, Ruiz argued. Young said he supports reactivating the plant without delay, but he argued new studies are needed to determine its impact on aquatic wildlife. “I’m in favor of the desal plant as soon as possible,” Young said. “We don’t have much time. We very well could be in year four of a 10-year drought.”