Dry with a Chance of Drier

With Lake Levels Dropping, Should Water Agencies Take Cuts?

<b>LOWER AND LOWER:</b> Cachuma Lake currently looks much as it did during the 2004-era drought.
Paul Wellman (file)

A parade of sunny days may be nice for beachgoing and biking, but months of cloudless weather can bring back not-so-nice memories of water rationing. Everyone’s waiting for the first drop of significant rain, even as the experts are predicting another dry winter.

Lake Cachuma, the main water source for 200,000 people living on the South Coast, is more than half empty. Two years of little rain and runoff have left a giant bathtub ring around its steep shores. Since water last spilled in 2011 over the Bradbury Dam, which forms Lake Cachuma on the Santa Ynez River, the level of the reservoir has dropped 44 feet. Every month without rain, it drops another three feet.

County records show that Lake Cachuma has slipped below the halfway mark only twice before, during the drought of 1987-1991 and during the summer of 2004. As of this week, the reservoir contains 90,000 acre feet of water, down from 196,000 acre feet at full capacity. “This is absolutely not looking good,” said Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, which is facing big cutbacks in its supply from Jameson Lake, a district-owned reservoir upstream from Lake Cachuma. “The community is thirsty. If it doesn’t rain, come February we will be in trouble.”

Unfortunately, the smart money is on a dry winter. According to Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Southern California is headed into another year of below-average rainfall, part of a 20-year cycle that began in 1998, bringing drier winters and colder summers. “There’s definitely no El Niño going to gallop over the horizon and save you,” Patzert said, referring to the climatic conditions in the Pacific Ocean that favor biblical rains. “A dry decade every once in a while is good, because it makes you rethink your water usage and your future.”

Lake Cachuma
Paul Wellman (file)

Lone Holdout

Yet, in a break with past practice, the five water agencies that depend on Lake Cachuma ​— ​Carpinteria, Goleta, Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Santa Ynez ​— ​are not taking across-the-board cutbacks in deliveries from the reservoir. Four of them favor such a measure, but the Goleta Water District, the largest user of Lake Cachuma water, is opposed, saying it’s too soon. And the other agencies are not about to accept cuts if Goleta won’t go along.

“Goleta has invested a lot of time and resources in really securing our diverse water portfolio so we can weather situations like this,” explained Kirsten McLaughlin, Goleta Water District’s supply and conservation manager. “Taking an automatic reduction in lake supplies at this point is beyond premature for us.”

“The pain from smaller reductions early on is far, far less than the pain and trauma of larger, more drastic reductions later.”

But Kevin Walsh, a trustee of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District No. 1, which serves Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Ballard, and Solvang, would like to avoid a repeat of the severe water rationing that he was forced to impose during the 1987-1991 drought, when he worked for the Goleta Water District. Today, Walsh favors an immediate 20 percent cutback in all Lake Cachuma deliveries in order to stretch the reservoir supplies. “It would send a unified signal to the public,” Walsh said. “The pain from smaller reductions early on is far, far less than the pain and trauma of larger, more drastic reductions later.”

Back in 1989, with Lake Cachuma well below the halfway mark, all five agencies voluntarily took a 20 percent cut in water deliveries from the reservoir. In 1990, they agreed to cut back by as much as 45 percent. But by then, the lake had shrunk to a level so low that the agencies were forced to install a barge to pump water through a floating pipe and up into the tunnel that delivers water to the South Coast.

At the current rate of the drawdown at Lake Cachuma ​— ​which includes daily deliveries to the South Coast, daily releases for endangered steelhead, sporadic releases for downstream ranchers, and evaporation loss ​— ​the reservoir’s water level could drop below the tunnel by the end of next year if the dry weather continues. “We don’t want to have to pump water out of a mud hole,” Walsh said, recalling the summer of 1990, when it seemed the reservoir might go dry. “That really was no fun.”

Paul Wellman

True Need?

On Friday, October 11, the five water agencies will meet at the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board offices to start discussing how to deploy the pipe and the barge in case of a third consecutive dry year. There is nothing in their contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation that requires the agencies to take cutbacks from Lake Cachuma during droughts, but according to a Bureau environmental report for the renewal of those contracts in 1995, the long-term safe yield of the lake is “based on the acceptance of a 20 percent shortage in total Cachuma Project water deliveries in any single dry year” whenever the lake drops to half-empty.

In 2004, when the lake dipped below that mark, the agencies agreed to reduce their deliveries by 20 percent, though it soon rained and no reductions were needed. Today, in blocking an all-encompassing agreement to cut back, Goleta water managers say they have to keep their customers’ pocketbooks in mind. The lake is their cheapest water supply. Goleta would have to order more state water from the California Aqueduct ​— ​an expensive proposition ​— ​to make up for any reductions from Lake Cachuma, McLaughlin said.

Besides, Goletans are already the most frugal water users on the South Coast, said Lauren Hanson, the Goleta Water District director who serves as president of the Cachuma board. According to the county Water Agency, the residential water use in Goleta averages 66 gallons per person per day, compared to 84 gallons in Carpinteria, 86 gallons in Santa Barbara, and ​— ​with large estates and ranches driving up the average ​— ​290 gallons in Montecito and 331 gallons in and around Santa Ynez. “The Goleta Water District serves a community that began conserving in the 1990s during those difficult drought years and never stopped,” Hanson said.

In addition to water from Lake Cachuma, Goleta and other South Coast agencies can draw supplies from underground water basins. And since the mid-1990s, they all have access to state aqueduct water, though it too is subject to cutbacks during dry periods. Due to the drought-like conditions, the state Department of Water Resources this year will deliver only 35 percent of the water that county voters agreed to pay for back in 1991 during the five-year drought. Last year, the department delivered 65 percent of entitlements.

Charles Hamilton, general manager of the Carpinteria Valley Water District, said Carpinteria is ready for a prolonged drought because it can draw on its large underground water basin and supplies of state water banked in other reservoirs. Hamilton said he’d be willing to go along with a 20 percent cut in Lake Cachuma deliveries now, but can see Goleta’s point of view. “I didn’t press the issue,” he said. “You wouldn’t do it unless everybody did it. But it’s something that may very well be prudent six months from now.”

“Nobody’s issued any type of drought or water shortage alert,” he said. “If we didn’t have state water today, we would have been meeting months ago.”

Montecito Water District’s Mosby thinks some of the agencies have lost their institutional memory of just how bad a drought can get in Southern California. “Nobody’s issued any type of drought or water shortage alert,” he said. “If we didn’t have state water today, we would have been meeting months ago.” Montecito is using state water to help make up for the dropping levels at Jameson Reservoir, but Mosby is worried that the state will cut allocations further if the dry weather continues. “The State Water Project has been our savior, and thank God we have it,” Mosby said. “But next year, what is [the Department of Water Resources] going to do to us?”

In Santa Barbara ​— ​where it rained less than 9 inches last season, or half the historical average ​— ​the city has enough well, state, and Lake Cachuma water to get through a third dry year without imposing rationing, said Rebecca Bjork, city water resources manager. And although the Lake Cachuma agencies can’t agree on blanket reductions, the city has decided to carry over 20 percent of this year’s Lake Cachuma supplies to help offset next year’s demand. “We’re very conservative in our water-supply planning,” Bjork said. “I know people are concerned because it’s dry and they’re not hearing a drought message. But if we ask too frequently, people will become less responsive. We want to ask them when we really need it.”


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.