Running on empty: The concrete spillway pad lies exposed at Cachuma's Bradbury Dam. (Courtesy U.S. Bureau of Reclamation)

Dry With a Chance of Drier

Continued from the previous page

With little rain in the forecast and Lake Cachuma levels dropping, should water agencies take cuts?



parade of sunny days may be nice for beach going and biking, but months of cloudless weather can bring back not-so-nice memories of water rationing. Even as the midweek brought a few drops from our stingy skies, the experts are predicting another dry winter.

Lake Cachuma, the main water source for 200,000 people living on the South Coast, is more than half empty. Two years of little rain and runoff have left a giant bathtub ring around its steep shores. Since water last spilled in 2011 over the Bradbury Dam, which forms Lake Cachuma on the Santa Ynez River, the level of the reservoir has dropped 44 feet. Every month without rain, it drops another 3 feet.

County records show that Lake Cachuma has slipped below the halfway mark only twice before, during the droughts of 1987-1991 and 2004-2005. As of this week, the reservoir contains 90,000 acre-feet of water, down from 196,000 acre-feet at full capacity.

“This is absolutely not looking good,” says Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, which is facing big cutbacks in its supply from Jameson Lake, a district-owned reservoir upstream from Lake Cachuma. “The community is thirsty. If it doesn’t rain, come February we will be in trouble.”

Unfortunately, the smart money is on a dry winter. According to Bill Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Southern California is headed into another year of below-average rainfall, part of a 20-year cycle that began in 1998, bringing drier winters and colder summers.

“There’s definitely no El Niño going to gallop over the horizon and save you,” Patzert says, referring to the climatic conditions in the Pacific Ocean that favor biblical rains. “A dry decade every once in awhile is good, because it makes you rethink your water usage and your future.”

Maybe, but it can be unnerving. The 2012-2013 water year, ending August 31, was the driest in Montecito since 2006-2007, the second driest at Lake Cachuma, the third driest in Carpinteria and Santa Ynez, and the fifth driest in the past 70 years in Santa Barbara. It was also the driest year on record at Gibraltar Reservoir, a City of Santa Barbara supply on the bone-dry Santa Ynez River between Lake Cachuma and Jameson Lake that is now the size of a large puddle, 6 feet deep and unfit to drink.

On maps of the West produced by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a broad-brush index of climatic, hydrological and soil conditions, all of Santa Barbara County is colored red, denoting “extreme drought.”

Yet, in a break with past practice, the five water agencies that depend on Lake Cachuma–Carpinteria, Goleta, Montecito, Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez–are not taking across-the-board cutbacks in deliveries from the reservoir. Four of them favor such a measure, but the Goleta Water District, the largest user of Lake Cachuma water, is opposed, saying it’s too soon. And the other agencies are not about to accept cuts if Goleta won’t go along.

“Goleta has invested a lot of time and resources in really securing our diverse water portfolio so we can weather situations like this,” explains Kirsten McLaughlin, Goleta Water District’s supply and conservation manager. “Taking an automatic reduction in lake supplies at this point is beyond premature for us.”

But Kevin Walsh, a trustee of the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, Improvement District No. 1, serving Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, Ballard and Solvang, would like to avoid a repeat of the severe water rationing that he was forced to impose during the 1987-1991 drought, when he worked for the Goleta Water District.

Today, Walsh favors an immediate 20 percent cutback in all Lake Cachuma deliveries in order to stretch the reservoir supplies. “It would send a unified signal to the public,” Walsh says. “The pain from smaller reductions early on is far, far less than the pain and trauma of larger, more drastic reductions later.”

As the lake level drops, the old state Highway 150 emerges as a thin causeway of land. (Melinda Burns)

As the lake level drops, the old state Highway 150 emerges as a thin causeway of land. (Melinda Burns)

On this map by the U.S. Drought Monitor, Santa Barbara County is colored red, denoting 'extreme drought.' (U.S. Drought Monitor website)

On this map by the U.S. Drought Monitor, Santa Barbara County is colored red, denoting 'extreme drought.' (U.S. Drought Monitor website)


ack in 1989, with Lake Cachuma well below the halfway mark, all five agencies voluntarily took a 20 percent cut in water deliveries from the reservoir. In 1990, they agreed to cut back by as much as 45 percent. But by then, the lake had shrunk to a level so low that the agencies were forced to install a barge to pump water through a floating pipe and up into the tunnel that delivers water to the South Coast.

At the current rate of the draw-down at Lake Cachuma—as recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the dam operator—which includes daily deliveries to the South Coast, daily releases for endangered steelhead, sporadic releases for downstream ranchers and water lost to evaporation, the reservoir’s water level could drop below the tunnel by the end of next year if the dry weather continues.

“We don’t want to have to pump water out of a mud hole,” Walsh says, recalling the summer of 1990, when it seemed the reservoir might go dry. “That really was no fun.”

On Friday, October 11, the five water agencies will meet at the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board offices on Laurel Canyon Road in Santa

Barbara to start discussing how to deploy the pipe and the barge in case a third consecutive dry year is on the way.

The five agencies maintain and operate the reservoir through the board. There is nothing in writing in their contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation that requires them to take cutbacks from Lake Cachuma during droughts. But according to a Bureau of Reclamation environmental report for the renewal of those contracts in 1995, the long-term safe yield of the lake is “based on the acceptance of a 20 percent shortage in total Cachuma Project water deliveries in any single dry year” whenever the lake drops to half-empty.

In 2004, when the lake dipped below that mark, the agencies agreed to reduce their deliveries by 20 percent, though it soon rained and no reductions were needed. Today, in blocking an all-encompassing agreement to cut back, Goleta water managers say they have to keep their customers’ pocketbooks in mind. The lake is their cheapest water supply. Goleta would have to order more state water from the California Aqueduct—an expensive proposition—to make up for any reductions from Lake Cachuma, McLaughlin says.

The boat ramp at Lake Cachuma will be moved a lower elevation on what used to be the lake bottom. (Melinda Burns)

The boat ramp at Lake Cachuma will be moved a lower elevation on what used to be the lake bottom. (Melinda Burns)

Besides, Goletans are already the most frugal water users on the South Coast, says Lauren Hanson, the Goleta Water District director who serves as president of the Cachuma board. According to the county Water Agency, the residential water use in Goleta averages 66 gallons per person per day, compared to 84 gallons in Carpinteria, 86 gallons in Santa Barbara, and—with large estates and ranches driving up the average—290 gallons in Montecito and 331 gallons in and around Santa Ynez.

“The Goleta Water District serves a community that began conserving in the 1990s during those difficult drought years and never stopped,” Hanson says.

In addition to water from Lake Cachuma, Goleta and other South Coast agencies can draw supplies from underground water basins. And since the mid-1990s, they all have access to state aqueduct water, though it, too, is subject to cutbacks during dry periods. Due to the drought-like conditions, the state Department of Water Resources this year will deliver only 35 percent of the state water that county voters agreed to pay for back in 1991 during the five-year drought. Last year, the department delivered 65 percent of entitlements.

Every month without rain, Lake Cachuma's water level drops 3 feet. (Department of Public Works / County of Santa Barbara)

Every month without rain, Lake Cachuma's water level drops 3 feet. (Department of Public Works / County of Santa Barbara)

Charles Hamilton, general manager of the Carpinteria Valley Water District, says Carpinteria is ready for a prolonged drought because it can draw on its large underground water basin and supplies of state water banked in other reservoirs. Hamilton says he’d be willing to go along with a 20 percent cut in Lake Cachuma deliveries now, but can see Goleta’s point of view.

“I didn’t press the issue,” he says. “You wouldn’t do it unless everybody did it. But it’s something that may very well be prudent six months from now.”

Montecito Water District’s Mosby thinks some of the agencies have lost their institutional memory of just how bad a drought can get in Southern California.

“Nobody’s issued any type of drought or water shortage alert,” he says. “If we didn’t have state water today, we would have been meeting months ago.”

Montecito is using state water to help make up for the dropping levels at Jameson Reservoir, but Mosby is worried that the state will cut allocations further if the dry weather continues.

“The State Water Project has been our savior, and thank God we have it,” Mosby says. “But next year, what is [the Department of Water Resources] going to do to us?”

In Santa Barbara, where it rained less than 9 inches last season, or half the historical average, the city has enough well water, state water and Lake Cachuma water to get through a third dry year without imposing rationing, even without Gibraltar Reservoir water, says Rebecca Bjork, city water resources manager. And although the Lake Cachuma agencies can’t agree on blanket reductions, the city has decided to carry over 20 percent of this year’s Lake Cachuma supplies to help offset next year’s demand.

“We’re very conservative in our water-supply planning,” Bjork says. “I know people are concerned because it’s dry and they’re not hearing a drought message. But if we ask too frequently, people will become less responsive. We want to ask them when we really need it.”

2 comments on “Dry With a Chance of Drier

  1. R. Peter Jackson says:

    Thank you for a clear, well written article. What is missing is a discussion by the bright, hard working professionals who run our various water agencies about the impact that raising water rates now would have on water use. Certainly a water rate increase would raise hell for the water districts and their staffs. But it would undoubtedly bring the problem to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Spending relatively small amounts of money to reduce consumption of higher priced water would save large amounts of water.

    The simple fact is that most of us waste water because it’s cheap, even the good people of Goleta. As I drive by old style, lush gardens and farms / orchards that are profitable only because they have access to subsidized water, I remember “We don’t have a shortage of water, we have a shortage of cheap water.”

  2. L Farwell says:

    This is an excellent and well-documented story. We need more of this quality of local stories. Without this story we would have no idea how potentially dire the situation is and how some of our ‘leaders’ are avoiding hard but important decisions. We will increase our water efficiency efforts today. Please keep us informed about the water situation.

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