WATER TORTURE: Somewhere along the shank end of Tuesday’s City Council meeting, my brain began exploding with dueling aphorisms. The Santa Barbara City Council was poised to pass a total ban on ornamental lawn watering. It was not yet another report. It was decisive action. Finally! I should have been grateful. Instead, I found myself perseverating about locking barn doors after all the horses were out and looking gift horses in the mouth. Joining my internal debate — this time in the council’s defense — were the old saws “Better late than never” and “Measure twice; cut once.” These were quickly rebutted by the adage “A stitch in time saves nine,” which in turn was contradicted by “Haste makes waste.” At that point, the word salad masquerading as internal dialogue got really messy. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink” went galloping across my prefrontal cortex, which is true, of course, unless your well happens to have just run dry, in which case you will be missing your water, and your horse — however well led — won’t be doing any drinking. No doubt there are medications for such afflictions, but what would be the point? As we enter year six of The Worst Drought Ever in California History, such unbidden noise is both inevitable and widespread. In this context, no pills can save us. The only thing that can is what’s normally drunk to wash those pills down. And of that, we are in precarious short supply.
How bad is it? Based on information revealed at Tuesday’s council meeting, worse than you think. The city’s Gibraltar Reservoir is now completely dry. Zero percent capacity. It turns out the city pays a dam keeper to live on-site and make sure everything’s okay. Naturally, he and his family need water. But because the dam is now dry, the city now finds itself forced to truck potable water up to Gibraltar so the dam keeper and his family can drink, bathe, and flush. Although Lake Cachuma is only 93 percent empty, the picture there is even starker. By the time the lawn-watering ban — approved unanimously by the council — goes into effect January 1, 2017, every drop of water at Lake Cachuma will have come from imported sources. Not one will have fallen as rain on Cachuma’s watershed and snaked its way into the reservoir as runoff. Instead, most of it will have been heaved and ho’d from Northern California and over mountain passes 2,000 feet high. That, by the way, qualifies as the highest heft for any water on the planet. It also explains why water delivery systems are the number one electricity user in California. All this is territory for which no precedence exists.
In addition to banning any lawn irrigation, the council upped its ante for conservation from 35 percent to 40 percent. All these measures, the council was told, should prevent an anticipated water shortfall of 300 acre-feet that city water planners are now projecting for next summer. If they don’t, city water czar Joshua Haggmark alluded cryptically to more drastic measures that might be pursued. Under questioning from Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss, Haggmark disclosed the city could impose a strict cap on the amount of water each family would be allowed to use. “And that gives every household a target?” Hotchkiss asked. Not quite. “They’d face stiff penalties, and after three violations, their water would be shut off,” Haggmark replied. Hotchkiss was stunned and incredulous. “Shut off their water??!!! Get out of town???!” If anything, I may have omitted a couple of Frank’s exclamation marks.
This was decidedly not where City Administrator Paul Casey wanted the conversation to go. Normally Casey is cool, calm, and collected personified. But here, the unflappable flapped, and an uncharacteristically flustered Casey insisted Haggmark’s Plan B was all “speculative,” adding he “did not want the media to report this.”
The real Plan B, of course, is the desalination plant, though there’s increasing suspense as to when it will be ready. Initially, the grand opening was to have been in October of this year. Now we’ll be lucky if it’s anytime March 2017. Big projects just take longer and cost more than expected. It’s a law of nature. In 2012, we thought it would cost $18 million to flip the switch on the city’s mothballed desal plant. Now, it’s closer to $60 million, and that doesn’t count interest or financing costs.
The council got a blunt reminder Tuesday night just how energy-intensive desalination is. To produce three million gallons of desalted seawater a year, engineers estimate the plant will consume three megawatts of electricity. Remember the 2,000-foot mountain pass state water has to be pushed over to get into Lake Cachuma? Desal, it turns out, needs about 25 percent more electricity than that. The desal plant will use half as much as all the electricity now used by City Hall in all its many operations. And that generates greenhouse-gas emissions: 4,000 metric tons’ worth. That, too, is one half the total volume of greenhouse gases currently generated by City Hall operations.
To the extent the drought is a function of climate change caused by greenhouse-gas emissions, some observers have noted — with no shortage of bitter irony — that Santa Barbara’s desalination plant will exacerbate the very problems that gave rise to the need for the desal plant in the first place. No one, however, has any patience for irony — bitter or otherwise — during droughts such as ours. I’m glad the council acted, however belatedly. Maybe we couldn’t have conserved our way out of this one, as the experts assure us. But in hindsight, we clearly should have hit conservation harder, faster, sooner. More. Had we banned lawn watering in 2012 — as one water wonk delicately reminded the council — we would have 5,400 acre-feet of indigenous water left in Cachuma. Admittedly, that’s not much. But you know what they say: A penny saved is a penny earned.
Correction: The council has banned lawn watering, not “ornamental outdoor” watering, as trees in particular need to be saved. Additionally, the water conservation went from 35 to 40 percent, not 25 to 40 percent.