When asked about this year’s drought forecast, the director of one of the South Coast’s biggest water agencies replied, “I’m peachy keen.” He quickly amended this assessment with “Please don’t quote that.” The exchange was peculiarly apt, given that Santa Barbara water agencies now find themselves confronting drastic multimillion-dollar decisions at the same time meteorological conditions have grown positively dewy, if not downright wet.
This water year started off far better than 2014’s. Last week, a light but sustained storm soaked the South Coast. Not enough fell to generate any runoff into Lake Cachuma, but the showers helped drive down water consumption for outdoor irrigation. Last year this time, the sky was, in fact, falling as the state experienced three of the driest successive years in recorded history. For the first time ever, the Department of Water Resources notified State Water Project customers they’d be getting no water at all. Ultimately, that allocation would be bumped to 5 percent. By contrast, this year, state water customers have been notified they’d receive 10 percent of their contracted allocation, and many water managers expect that amount to increase in the next few months.
While such news doesn’t quite qualify as good, it’s not nearly as bad as it could be. Ray Stokes of the Central Coast Water Authority is optimistic he’ll be able to secure up to 10,400 acre-feet in “supplemental water” purchased from San Bernardino County and Antelope Valley. That will go a long way toward slaking the South Coast’s thirst. It will have to. Lake Cachuma is one-quarter full with 55,000 acre-feet, but that gives a greatly exaggerated notion of how much water is actually available. The real number is closer to 21,000. In typical years, water agencies draw 25,000 acre-feet. The 12,000 acre-feet lying on the reservoir’s bottom — known as the “Dead Pool” — is so mucky that it can’t be pumped and treated to a potable level. Evaporation will consume 6,000 acre-feet, and another 3,500 will be released to keep a remnant population of endangered steelhead from being driven into extinction.
For the City of Santa Barbara, the question is whether to reactivate the long-mothballed desalination plant. The drop-dead date for that decision is this April. If it doesn’t rain seriously hard between now and then, city water planners argue they’ll have no choice but to pull the trigger. The cost of reactivation is $5.3 million a year for 10 years. To pay for that, water rates for average low-volume users would jump from $27.34 to $40.29 a month; moderate users would see their bills go from $78.46 a month to $108.37. The proposed new water rates have yet to be approved but are slated to go into effect this July.
Some councilmembers and water commissioners have begun to ask staff whether there might be another way to navigate the drought. Couldn’t the city purchase more water from water agencies outside the county? This year, for example, City Hall has set aside $4.5 million to buy as much as 4,500 acre-feet. City water czar Josh Haggmark said the carrying capacity of the state water pipes is not big enough to deliver the amount of water needed to render the desal plant unnecessary. Only steady, heavy rains — enough to spill over the dam — would suffice. The desal plant must be approved by the Coastal Commission and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The Coastal Commission hears the matter in February, and the regional water board on January 29.
In the meantime, Congressmember Lois Capps coauthored a drought relief bill — along with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Davis), Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-El Monte), and 13 other members of Congresss — that would provide $700 million in grants and $500 million in loan guarantees for conservation, water recycling, and other water infrastructure projects.