Under a steady spray of light rain, the Santa Barbara City Council voted 5-2 to lift the mandatory ban on lawn watering that the council had adopted just three months ago and replace it with a voluntary ban instead. The council majority also voted to ease up on the level of conservation demanded of city residents, dropping the 40 percent target down to 30 percent. The heavy rains that pummeled the south coast throughout February helped fill Lake Cachuma to the halfway mark and the Gibraltar Reservoir to the top.
City water planners Joshua Haggmark and Kelly Dyer cautioned that the drought is far from over but agreed that residents had earned a respite from the “drought fatigue” caused by six of the hottest, driest years on record. The mandatory lawn ban was enacted when it looked like the city would not have enough water to supply residents during 2017’s summer peak demand. At that time, Lake Cachuma was all but empty and the desal plant refurbishment was months behind schedule. Councilmembers Cathy Murillo, who is running for mayor, and Jason Dominguez, both voted against lifting the ban, citing water commissioners concerns and general uncertainty. Dominguez specifically mentioned that federal agencies are about to require more Lake Cachuma water releases to help restore endangered steelhead trout habitat. And what, he asked, if the city lost thousands of acre-feet of state water it had stored in San Luis Reservoir?
During this winter’s storms, it’s highly likely that the reservoir did, in fact, overspill — meaning much of the city’s stored water might have been lost, but it is difficult to determine the amount, and key details can not be resolved until May. As for steelhead, dam operators have been ordered to release water this week, and because the same pipes are used to release water as well as to bring in state water, additional deliveries will be postponed indefinitely.