DROUGHT WATCH: The Bad News is that unless the skies open up with a huge deluge sometime soon, Lake Cachuma — the chief water source for 200,000 South Coast residents — will be functionally dry by October 2015. The Good News is that we now have someone to blame for all this. The Fish.
This revelation emerged during a lengthy drought-themed finger-point-a-thon hosted this Tuesday by the County Supervisors. It turns out that the few remaining native wild steelhead trout in the Santa Ynez River have been conspiring to get revenge on the humans for making them nearly extinct. Apparently, they’ve been drinking all our water. To listen to Supervisor Peter Adam and Andy Caldwell — the impressively opinionated Outside Agitator from Nipomo — we’d be doing fine if we weren’t forced to piss away massive gobs of water down a short, scrawny stretch of Hilton Creek to keep a remnant population in the comfort to which they’d like to be accustomed. Adam charged that dam operators release 10 acre-feet of water a day to keep 300 wannabe steelhead (they don’t become bona fide until they reach the ocean) alive. That’s 100 million gallons of H2O a month for fish, most of whom aren’t big enough to cover even a saltine cracker. To keep these fish alive, Adam calculated, the rest of us — 200,000 sweaty, hardworking, tax-paying Homo sapiens — would need to take showers no more than 30 seconds long. And that, he said, was not a dotted line he was willing to sign.
Not meaning to quibble, there would have been 400 more steelhead in Hilton Creek had the water pumps owned, operated, and maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation not failed 11 times in the past 14 months, effectively giving an illegally large number of endangered fish a lethal mud bath. It’s also worth noting the amount of water released to keep the fish on life support is one-third the amount that evaporates off Lake Cachuma every day.
If you want to fly by the seat of your pants, you need be able to find your ass with at least one hand. Based on Tuesday’s proceedings, we can’t. We still don’t know, for example, how low Lake Cachuma must go before we can legally stop providing for the steelhead. Under one scenario, it’s 30,000 acre-feet. We’re there right now. Under another, it’s twice that. It turns out that we also don’t know what we do when we get there. If I heard Michael Jackson of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Fresno headquarters right, that’s when affected stakeholders need to start talking about what’s next. For once, Outside Agitator Caldwell got it right. “We don’t have a plan,” he complained. “We have a prayer.” Yes, but to which God? Supervisor Salud Carbajal — apparently an atheist — freaked out that we weren’t freaking out more. “If this is a crisis, we need to act more like it’s a crisis,” he exclaimed perhaps as often as 23 times.
Santa Barbara water managers plan for droughts every five years. Our current drought delivered seven years of parched pain in year three. It’s not supposed to happen. It did. We’re finally getting it. Last month, we managed to suck 1,000 acre-feet less out of Lake Cachuma than we did this time the previous two years. Tuesday night, the Goleta Water District finally declared a drought emergency, closing the door to any new water hookups. Santa Barbara city residents cut back consumption by 25 percent last month, Carpinterians by 26 percent, and Montecitans by 50. The Montecito numbers deserve a giant asterisk, as its residents have responded by becoming water vampires. Montecito’s shimmering emerald lawns have spawned a lucrative cottage industry of water truck trafficking — 10 cents a gallon for delivery — with much of the water being pumped by private well owners in Carpinteria. This practice hasn’t put a dent in Carpinteria’s substantial underground water basin — at least yet — but it’s generated tons of truck traffic on some scenic, narrow roads. It’s hard to exhort the masses to cut back water consumption when others are getting rich selling the very water they’re supposed to stop using. Carp water czar Charles Hamilton told me he just found out the practice is, in fact, illegal and that he put three water truckers on notice. One, he said, agreed to quit. Another told me he was cutting back to all but a trickle, while questioning why it’s okay for South Coast water districts to buy water from Sacramento rice farmers, but when he sells, he’s the villain. The Goleta Water District is going to start selling “recycled water” — from Toilet to Tap — produced by the Goleta Sanitary District. I’d suggest our state reps in Sacramento lobby the powers that be to get the waivers needed so Goleta could sell this product to the water truckers serving Montecito. It sure beats using potable well water, and no one has to be a villain.
In the meantime, the state legislature passed three bills that would — for the first time — regulate the state’s groundwater basins. It’s groundbreaking, earth shattering, and historic. But right now, it won’t do squat. Nothing has to happen until 2020. But Outside Agitator Caldwell managed to disprove there’s no such thing as a stupid question. This Tuesday, he asked, “Are we really so clueless that the state has to come in and tell them [the water agencies], ‘You’re in overdraft’?” The answer is yes. Organic carrot companies are strip-mining the underground oceans of water in the Cuyama Valley, taking out 26,000 acre-feet a year — twice the City of Santa Barbara annual consumption and more than is recharged. Likewise, the water basins serving customers in Lompoc, Santa Ynez, and Los Alamos are out of balance, though hardly as spectacularly as Nuke-Yo-Mamma’s.
As bad as we are with groundwater management, we’re not a whole lot better figuring out our surface water supply. Last month, researchers with UC Davis released a bombshell of a report indicating that every drop of surface water in California was spoken for five-to-10 times over. It’s like the airlines selling the seat you paid for five-to-10 times over, except it’s a lot more essential. While the degree of over-subscription varies significantly from river basin to river basin, here’s the bottom line: California has 70 million acre-feet of surface water to use as it sees fit every year. But if you add up all the individuals, agencies, and entities holding legal valid water rights, that number is 370 million acre-feet. You do the math, because I can’t.
When Caldwell said, “We don’t have a plan; we have a prayer,” he could have been talking about our collective response to the drought. The time to start applying the brakes, we should have already understood, is not when you’re halfway through the red light. To relearn some lessons, you must first survive. To that end, hug your inner steelhead. And pray for rain.