Lake Cachuma
Paul Wellman

With Governor Jerry Brown openly ruminating on the possibility California is now in the throes of a “mega-drought,” the Department of Water Resources announced that the State Water Project will not be making any deliveries in the year 2014. That marks the first time ever in the system’s 54-year history that the farmers and urban water customers — 25 million people and 1 million acres — who have come to rely upon state water will get not a drop. Earlier this year, it was announced that the State Water Project would be delivering only 5 percent of contracted allotments to the 29 agencies drawing from the system.

“Obviously it’s a hit,” said Ray Stokes, manager of the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA), the joint-powers agency responsible for importing state water into Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. “But we were anticipating this and planning accordingly.” That being said, Stokes acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the declaration. “I am not calm and collected,” he confessed.

Although California’s water picture seemed to get somewhat rosier this week after a few feet of snow fell in the Sierras, it still was only 12 percent of normal. At the same time, state hydrologists have declared that 9 percent of the California landmass was experiencing what they termed “extreme drought” — a first in the past 15 years. Long-term water planners are now suggesting the state is in the worst water predicament since the 1880s. Grabbing national headlines is the fact that 17 communities throughout California are now officially without water. Hydro geologists are tossing about the term “mega-drought” in reference to the prospect that California’s water woes might transcend the usual seven-year and 20-year drought cycles that water planners have come to recognize. As if that weren’t enough, some experts are now suggesting that California’s explosive population growth over the past 150 years occurred during an abnormally wet period.

As a hypothetical matter, the Santa Barbara water agencies participating in the State Water Project — all of them except for Lompoc — are contractually entitled to receive up to 45,686 acre-feet of water a year. As a practical matter, however, the system can rarely make good on full delivery. The only time that’s happened since Santa Barbara voters endorsed hooking up to state water back in 1991 was in 2006.

With that in mind, the difference between zero and 5 percent translates to 2,275 acre-feet of water. But for the City of Solvang and the Montecito Water District — the two agencies most dependent upon state water — every little bit would help. Without full delivery, these two agencies will find themselves hard-pressed to get through the coming year without declaring severe emergency conditions. Montecito could go dry as early as this summer.

Of greater strategic importance to local agencies is that the San Joaquin River Delta — the pinch point for deliveries from the state’s north to the south — has been declared utterly impassable. That’s because water levels there have dropped to record lows and salt-water intrusion to record highs. Even so, Stokes is hoping this will change. Should that happen, CCWA would have the physical wherewithal to buy water from rice farmers or water agencies to the north with supplies to spare. That assumes, of course, such willing sellers exist. Under the current drought declared by Governor Brown, Stokes said, any such water wheeling would be restricted to the months of July, August, and September, a time when demand is typically highest and supply lowest.

In past years, the CCWA has banked about 13,680 acre-feet of state water into the vast inland San Luis Reservoir. Because San Luis is located south of the delta, there should be no technical problem delivering that water to Lake Cachuma. Central Valley newspapers have raised concerns that the federal Bureau of Reclamation — which parked water in the same reservoir — might insist its rights to the San Luis reservoir water trump California water agencies doing the same. Stokes has insisted that its water rights are contractually iron-clad and pointed out that CCWA is already pulling 50 acre-feet a water a day out of the San Luis Reservoir and delivering it to Lake Cachuma.

For most South Coast water agencies, state water has been a supplemental water supply. Agencies like Santa Barbara’s, Carpinteria’s, Santa Maria’s and Goleta’s enjoy relatively large underground aquifers, which they can draw down to compensate for the loss of state water and — for the South Coast agencies — for diminished capacity at Lake Cachuma. Thus far, Solvang, Montecito, and the County of Santa Barbara have already issued declarations of a Stage 1 drought, meaning that customers are being asked to cut back consumption by 20 percent. Goleta and Carpinteria have yet to issue similar declarations, and the City of Santa Barbara is scheduled to do so next Tuesday.


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