With Monday’s splatter of rain and hillsides brilliantly green instead of blanched brown, it’s hard to remember that Santa Barbara — like the rest of the state — is still in the grips of one of the worst droughts in memory. This cognitive dissonance was very much on the mind of State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and Assemblymember Das Williams at a love fest organized last week by the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB) and managers of several South Coast water agencies.
Jackson and Williams were lavished with high praise for bringing home $2 million in emergency drought relief from the halls of Sacramento. That will go a long way toward defraying some of the costs incurred by COMB to build a $6 million pump needed to hoist water from Lake Cachuma into intake portals if and when the water level there drops by another six feet. Depending on weather patterns, that could happen as soon as April.
For South Coast residents, Lake Cachuma is the single most important barrier between them and drought. Currently, it’s 28 percent full. But that number presents an overly generous picture. A little less than half the water is either spoken for by farmers and fish or will evaporate, and the bottom 12,000 acre-feet is so thick and mucky it defies treatment.
How much time the remaining amount can last, COMB executive Randall Ward declined to say. “There are too many factors,” he said. “Any answer would be highly speculative.” The water agencies drawing from Cachuma have cut back to 45 percent of “normal.” It’s not clear what set of conditions are required before even further reductions would be adopted.
When Jackson and Williams first went to work for the funding last spring, they were met with chilly resistance in Sacramento. Santa Barbarans, they were told, weren’t conserving enough. At the time, Montecito was the poster child for conspicuous overconsumption. Since then, Montecito has imposed rationing and backed it up with stiff fines. Residents served by other water districts have also tightened their belts. Ward, a former Sacramento insider, exclaimed over Jackson and Williams’s behind-the-scene prowess, terming their accomplishment a feat of “political engineering” and adding, “I’m not sure I want to know how they did it.”
However, the funds themselves pale in comparison to the gargantuan sums contemplated just to buy supplemental water from districts outside the area. For example, the City of Santa Barbara alone has budgeted $4.5 million for such purchases. Other districts are also prepared to spend well into the seven digits.
With the pinch on the State Water System now less severe, there’s water to be had and deals to be made. Santa Barbara agencies might sign an agreement with a Kern County district this week to buy 7,500 acre-feet. The up-front cost is $500 an acre-foot, cheap compared to last year’s panic prices. But that water would have to be paid back within 10 years.
In the meantime, the City of Santa Barbara is gritting its teeth — and those of its ratepayers — to spend as much as $42 million to reactivate its defunct desalination plant. This week, the Regional Water Quality Control Board will
hold a hearing on whether the facility is covered by existing permits that date back to the last major drought that ended in 1991. By all reckonings, the plant is expected to sail through unscathed.
Kira Redmond of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper has objected that the desal plant — designed and built in accordance with environmental standards of the 1990s — fails utterly to meet contemporary federal water-quality standards. Redmond’s chief concern is that the underwater intake pipes cause gratuitous violence to aquatic larvae and microscopic sea life.
Redmond said she’s not opposing reactivation as an emergency response to an acute drought. But beyond that scope, she said, the plant should be made to comply with contemporary standards. To this end, she’s been pushing City Hall to conduct a study on intake alternatives under the sea floor. In the short run, she acknowledged this technology is more expensive. But in the long run, she added, it’s cheaper because it requires less energy and filtration and fewer chemicals.