Credit: Courtesy Lael Wageneck

For the first time in over a decade, Lake Cachuma is spilling. Images from Santa Barbara County’s Public Works Department on Wednesday show a cascade of water flowing from the lake’s reservoir through Bradbury Dam’s spillway gates at a max of 4,100 cubic feet per second.  

Lake Cachuma is nearly full, sitting just shy of 100 percent capacity thanks to December and January’s storms. To allow space for incoming water flows, the Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) scheduled releases from approximately 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday. 

The water from the lake will flow out to the Santa Ynez River from each of the dam’s gates. According to the USBR, from there it contributes to replenishing groundwater supplies, can be diverted by downstream water users, and ultimately reaches the ocean. 

The USBR had originally planned for the release to occur on Saturday, January 14, but the release was deferred due to weakening storm conditions and decreased rainfall projections. According to current weather forecasts, Santa Barbara is expected to see more rainfall later on in February.

“Following the intense storms in January that included a 24-hour record setting event in Santa Ynez, Lake Cachuma rose by more than 50-feet and nearly filled,” said Mary Lee Knecht, public information officer for the USBR. “Climatic conditions remained unsettled and the National Weather Service was forecasting another significant event on the heels of the record setter, and as a precaution with the Lake nearly full, Reclamation planned to make some pre-releases in order to make room in the lake to safely accommodate the rain event that was forecasted to arrive over a 5 day to 10-day window.”

However, Knecht said, as the storm approached, its intensity fizzled, and USBR was able to delay the Spillway Gates operation until Wednesday, and “better balance the need to conserve precious water supplies.” She said NOAA Fisheries expect Wednesday’s water releases to help with flushing the turbidity and sediment brought on by the January storms.

“As part of our Standing Operation Procedures, the Spillway Gates are to be exercised whenever the opportunity presents itself to observe their performance and ensure proper functionality,” Knecht added.

The USBR said they coordinate with local interests and county officials to evaluate the information provided by the National Weather Service and other agencies. Using that information, Reclamation manages Cachuma’s reservoir to maximize water supply while protecting communities downstream from flooding and minimizing disturbance to downstream fisheries, with the goal of finishing the rainy season with a 100 percent full lake.

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