Lake Cachuma
Paul Wellman

It’s official: the storage in Lake Cachuma, normally the main water source for the South Coast, is setting new records for historic lows.

The previous low of 27,900 acre-feet of water in Cachuma was reached in February 1991. Within weeks, a series of deluges known as the March Miracle brought more than 18 inches of rain, filling and spilling the lake over Bradbury Dam and ending a five-year drought.

This year, no such miracle is remotely likely, at least until the rainy season begins – if it begins. As of Thursday, Cachuma storage is at 27,340 acre-feet, or 14 percent of capacity. Next month, it is expected to drop to about 10 percent capacity with a big release to downstream users.

“We saw it coming because of the absence of rain,” said Tom Fayram, who heads the water resources division for county Public Works. “This has been the driest five years on record.”

The lake’s new lows are forcing the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB) to move an emergency pumping barge from the east end of the lake to deeper water near the county park. The barge pumps water from the lake through a floating pipeline up into the intake tower for delivery via the Tecolote Tunnel to the South Coast. Over several years, the agency has spent $6 million on the emergency barge project.

The barge move was planned for Wednesday but will be postponed until June 29 because of the Sherpa Fire, officials said. It would require shutting off water deliveries for up to 48 hours. Firefighters are pumping lake water from hydrants located at Dos Pueblos High School and next to El Capitan Ranch.

“We don’t want to do a shutdown during the fire, because we want to have a consistent, reliable source of water for the emergency,” said Janet Gingras, general manager of COMB.

The only water coming into the lake now is state aqueduct water. In addition to what the South Coast is taking out, the lake is losing water daily to evaporation. A “minimum pool” of about 12,000 acre-feet must be maintained so that state water can move to the pumping barge, Gingras said. (One acre-foot of water supplies about 12 people yearly.)

In mid-July, about 7,000 acre-feet of water, or nearly half the remaining usable storage in the lake, will be released into the Santa Ynez River to replenish well water for the cities of Lompoc, Solvang, and Buellton, and dozens of farms, COMB officials said. The downstream water rights were established before Bradbury Dam was built.

“We’re using all the available credits to us,” said Bruce Wales, general manager of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District. “What we’re calling in now as a final increment was built up over many years … We gotta get the water out of there before the reservoir gets too low, or we won’t get it out. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next winter.”

To view live footage of Lake Cachuma, visit the county’s live camera.


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