Even Goleta Water District's demonstration garden has had its water turned off.

Goleta Water District (GWD) managers praise their 87,000 customers’ water-saving behavior as the fourth year of a regional drought concludes with no end in sight. Almost in the same metaphorical breath they also ask them to tighten their belts further.

Vic Cox

“We have the lowest per capita water use of any South Coast operation,” said General Manager John McInnes in a recent interview. “Our customers are among the state’s top five leaders” in conservation.

The numbers appear to bear him out. Goleta’s residential consumption averaged 50.8 gallons of potable water a day last June. The district’s average for the same month in 2014 was 63.6 gallons, according to the State Water Board (SWB).

Comparing statewide consumption rates for June (the most recent data available), the State Water Board found that the average Goleta Water District customer used around half that of their fellow Californians. However, without meters that precisely monitor real-time consumption, managers must project trends based on behavioral snapshots. Even when the math is accurate, monthly comparisons can be deceptive.

As a journalist I am no expert on the water industry, but research convinces me that calculating current water use impacts, much less predicting future ones, is highly complicated and usually hinge on people’s best judgments.

To protect public health and safety while balancing water supply and demand, McInnes says his staff “hopes for the best and plans for the worst.” With an elected board of directors, he runs a 29,000-acre district in a semi-arid region that stretches from Santa Barbara City borders west to El Capitan State Beach. The State Water Board currently rates the district as in “exceptional drought.”

Ryan Drake, water supply and conservation manager, is one of the district’s principal trend analysts. He often reminds board members that the monthly supply-and-demand numbers turn on variables like the weather and human behavior. For example, seasonal plantings as well as irrigation techniques influence how much water the district’s 165 agricultural accounts require. The crops consume the same potable water — water safe for cooking and drinking — that people use.

Another Goleta lawn makes way for a water-saving landscape.

Lake Cachuma, the traditional source of roughly half the district’s potable water, now holds an estimated one-quarter of its original capacity. For the first time in the lake’s 60-year history, purveyors have been told to expect no new water allocations this coming water year, beginning October 1. Fortunately, the district can still withdraw Cachuma water “banked” from previous wet years, but other Goleta district water reserves are withering under the persistent drought.

Over the years, board members, managers, and voters have assembled backup sources that include participation in the State Water Project, the adjudicated Goleta Groundwater Basin, a recycled water project with the Goleta Sanitary District that annually sells about one-third of its output for landscape irrigation, and by fostering conservation through rebates and customer education. As state water has become increasingly erratic and Cachuma’s holdings decline, reliable but expensive underground water has become the district’s principal source.

McInnes and Drake point to the district’s five-year, multimillion-dollar infrastructure investment to restore eight supply wells, maintain 270 miles of pipelines, and boost leak-detection as well as meter replacement. Two new supply wells are also on the drawing board. Last July the GWD board thanked the Civilian Conservation Corps for helping staff replace leaky old water meters with more efficient ones, saving an estimated 350 acre feet (nearly 11.5 million gallons).

Despite these actions, shortfalls forced the Goleta Water District to call a water shortage emergency three times between March 2014 and May 2015. Each stage built on and expanded restrictions from the previous one, with the saving goal growing to 35 percent reduction by 2014-15. (See Stage III restrictions and penalties here).

If no rain falls and present supply and conservation trends continue, Drake estimates that Stage IV, with its 45 percent reduction goal, may happen in August or September 2016. Due to a doubling of agricultural water use last year, he had expected a Stage IV declaration this fall. It has not happened due to major cuts in crop water the first half of 2015. “It was a significant change in (farming) behavior that affected our supply scenario,” he explained, illustrating the importance of the human factor in the drought.

Many Goletans see the huge commercial and residential construction presently going on and wonder where the water will come from for these people and businesses. In light of a district moratorium on new water hookups since May 2014, McInnes is frequently asked about the apparent contradiction. His reply boils down to the legal necessity of serving pent-up demand when developers hold water permits granted during a wetter, prerecession world.

Board President Lauren Hanson emphasized that while the district’s “careful water management” will not change, “it will be critical … that our community — residential, commercial and agricultural water users — continue a strong commitment to conservation.” The simple reason is that it buys time for natural rain cycles to reestablish themselves, which most everyone hopes for.

McInnes downplays the forecasts of a wet El Niño this winter. “I follow all the scientific literature, and no one knows (what El Niño will do). I don’t know, and the fact is no one knows what Mother Nature is going to bring.”

Looking ahead he supports exploring the feasibility of a pilot project to test the technical and psychological boundaries of treating wastewater for more than landscape irrigation. “We have all this water, millions of gallons, and it makes no sense to pump it into the ocean,” he argues. “The technology exists to treat it to safe levels.” The pilot project, he adds, “will get at the facts so the community can make an informed decision on whether or not they think it’s acceptable here.”

In the meantime, the drought’s tightening squeeze may hasten that process.


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