Ray Stokes has never been one for hair-on-fire histrionics. After serving 26 years as the resident Wizard of Oz running the Central Coast Water Authority — which conveys roughly 25,000 acre-feet of water a year from the rivers of Northern California to the spigots of Santa Barbara County — Stokes knows a thing or two about droughts. The one California now finds itself caught in might be the worst. “It’s very drastic,” stated the usually understated Stokes.
Stokes was referring to last week’s decision by the State Water Resources Control Board to limit deliveries to no more than 5 percent of entitled allotments. That means the Central Coast Water Agency (CCWA) will be allowed to take only 2,275 acre-feet this year. If the eight-member water agencies that make up CCWA were to get 100 percent of their entitled allotments, they’d get 45,000 acre-feet. Most years, however, they get about half that.
This latest cut will affect even the water agencies and big farming operations north of the Delta from which Stokes has purchased “supplemental” water during past droughts. Those supplemental water supplies — which were shipped south through the vast spiderweb of pipes and pumps that have made the State Water system invaluable even when it had little water to spare — saved Santa Barbara’s bacon during the last drought. Now it appears the last drought and the current drought are part of what meteorologists describe as one big “mega-drought.”
Every other week, Stokes flies to Sacramento looking for deals. He relies on a network of personal relationships he’s developed and cultivated over a lifetime working in the water trenches. This week, CCWA voted to spend $30,000 to hire a special consultant to help Stokes seek out new sources. The City of Santa Barbara, he said, is looking for 2,000 additional acre-feet; Montecito, another 1,000. “I would say this is worse than the drought of 2013,” Stokes said. “It’s a much more precarious situation.”
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Statewide, the drought is changing the face of California agriculture. The Washington Post reported that 400,000 acres of California ag-land are now lying fallow because of the drought, resulting in an estimated loss of $1.1 billion and 9,000 jobs.
Little wonder Governor Gavin Newsom authorized the expenditure of $22.8 million on drought emergency measures, mostly to preach the gospel of conservation. In Santa Barbara, however, city residents are already using about 25 percent less water today than they were in 2013.
In southern Santa Barbara County, the direness of the situation has yet to sink in. The City of Santa Barbara has a desalination plant, with which it now also supplies the Montecito Water District. And Lake Cachuma is nearly half full and holding 90,000 acre-feet. But that sounds rosier than it actually is. Of that, 11,000 acre-feet will be lost to evaporation, and 8,200 acre-feet needs to be set aside to create habitat for the federally endangered steelhead trout. Thousands more acre-feet must be released to replenish the aquifers of downstream users. The remaining water is so grimy and muddy that it can’t be treated to a drinkable state.
In the long term, Stokes believes CCWA will need to manage its State Water deliveries as if they’re a “wet-year project.” Translated, that means that the state water project will deliver the most — as its critics long contended — in wet years when it was needed least. Agencies like CCWA will need to find places — underground aquifers — where they can park State Water deliveries in wet years and then pump them when times get dry. That sounds simple, but figuring out how to make it work will be anything but. In the meantime, Stokes said he’s still looking for new water supplies. “I’m not giving up hope,” he said.