Just Because It’s Raining

Doesn't Mean Water Worries Are Over

It’s raining, thank heaven! Santa Barbara County is, as of this writing, at 125 percent of average yearly rainfall (with more on the way). Lake Cachuma (in wet years more than half of the City of Santa Barbara’s water supply) is 52 percent full. The city and county have moved from Severe Drought to Abnormally Dry. Knowing all of this, it’s tempting to conclude the drought is over and that we can all return to “water use as usual.” That would be a huge mistake!

Santa Barbara is not water independent. The city does not own all the water in Lake Cachuma. It is entitled to only 32.19 percent of the water in the reservoir. Montecito, Goleta, Carpinteria, and the Santa Ynez Valley all own and draw water from the reservoir. And, by law, water must be released from the lake yearly to support endangered steelhead trout along with some 38,000 acres of downstream farmlands. In fact, the only water that is exclusively Santa Barbara’s is the water we conserve, the nonpotable water we recycle, and the desalinated water from the Charles E. Meyer plant. The rest of our supply is dependent on climate change and drought, and two increasingly tenuous sources of imported water (the Sierra snowpack and the Colorado River).

According to climate scientists, drought is the “new normal” for the Southwest, including California. We just lived through the five hottest years on record, with Santa Barbara remaining in severe drought until the recent rains. Despite the rain we are experiencing, drought will determine whether and/or how much imported water southern California cities will actually receive from the State Water Project (Sierra snowpack), which in turn is dependent on water availability from the Colorado River Compact.

Santa Barbara gets 30 percent of its water from the State Water Project (Sierra snowpack), when it’s available. Putting this in context, the State Water Project (SWP), which provides water to some 25 million Californians (including cities and farmers) as well as the environment, is dependent on the Sierra snowpack.

No snow, no water.

Unfortunately, this in the time of drought is a “zero sum” situation. If there is an insufficient amount of water California may reduce or discontinue deliveries, with junior SWP water rights holders, like Santa Barbara (and Goleta and Montecito), first on the list of reduced or discontinued deliveries. This is what happened in 2015 when because of the severity of the drought governor Brown ordered a 25 percent statewide reduction in water use.

To understand the magnitude of this “competition” for imported water, consider that cities throughout southern Californian rely on the same SWP imported water in the following amounts: Los Angeles 85 percent, Orange County 50 percent, San Diego 80 percent, Goleta 30 percent, and Montecito 72 percent.

To further underscore the tenuous nature of our dependence on imported water, the Colorado River is the State Water Project’s insurance policy. In the case of unavailable Sierra snowpack water, the SWP draws on California’s share of the Colorado River to meet its deliveries.

The Colorado River serves some 40 million people in seven states, including California, and Mexico. The Colorado River Basin has been in drought since 2000 with scientists predicting a mega-drought for the region lasting plus 20 years. This February, the federal government (Bureau of Reclamation), which manages the water, made it clear that shortages and decreased water deliveries caused by the shortages are here.

The driest 19-year period in the recorded history of the Colorado River Basin has left the two biggest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the latter brings water to California, only 40 percent full. Federal river managers say there is a 57 percent chance that Lake Mead levels will fall so low next year that they will have to declare a shortage for the first time. A low level would cause the hydropower production from Hoover Dam to be shut down. It would also trigger reduction in water deliveries to California, the SWP, and Southern California cities including Santa Barbara.

Ensuring adequate water in semi-arid drought-prone Southern California is complicated stuff. Too many interests (nations, states, cities, farmers, environmentalists) are all “fighting” over the same tenuous water supplies. If we are to act rationally several things have to happen: Santa Barbara, (indeed all of Southern California) must continue to conserve water; Santa Barbara, in the process of selling some of its desalinated water to Montecito, should develop the Charles E. Meyer plant to full capacity (10,000 acre feet annually); and all new development should include proof of adequate water deliveries over the life of proposed projects.

This is the reality of life in a semi-arid environment in the time of climate change and drought.

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