After recent rains, Lake Cachuma- southern Santa Barbara County’s main water source – is 57 percent full, lessening concerns of a possible drought in the year to come.
Robert Almy, manager of Santa Barbara County Water Agency, said the current rainfall has reset the “drought clock” by about one year – providing all the rain expected for the entire year. Southern Santa Barbara County uses 20,000 to 25,000 acre-feet of water per year, he said, and the last storm brought an influx of nearly 30,000 acre-feet. One acre-foot is equal to the amount of water needed to cover one acre of land one foot deep.
The Santa Barbara County Water Agency had originally planned to hold a meeting Jan. 5 to discuss the first phase of a drought response in the spring, Almy said, but because of the abundant rainfall in recent weeks, the meeting has been postponed for at least another year.
The water agency manages Cachuma Lake, which, should a drought occur, is rationed to supply southern Santa Barbara County with water for six to seven years. Bob Wignot, general manager of the Lake Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board, said the area receives 14 inches of rain in an average year, while 21.6 inches of rain have already fallen this season. The rainy season lasts from July 1 until June 30 of the following year, and Wignot said 2004 saw 13.25 inches of rainfall in December alone.
Tom Fayram, water resources deputy director, said in the 24-hour period between Monday, Jan. 3 to Tuesday, Jan. 4, 6,000 acre-feet of runoff water drained into Lake Cachuma, reducing the possibility of a drought in the near future.
“That is one-fourth of the year’s water in one day,” Fayram said. “The imminent threat of Lake Cachuma getting too low is past us.”
Almy said the lake is about 30 feet from full, equivalent to roughly 80,000 acre-feet of water. He said it could take anywhere from one to as many as 10 very large storms to fill the lake.
“As long as there is rain, the water situation improves day by day,” Almy said.
Fayram said he believes the next few months could bring enough rain to actually fill the lake.
However, Wignot said there is no certainty as to what will happen to water levels during the drier months.
“Lake Cachuma gained a substantial amount of water. It is more water than we use in one year,” he said. “In short term, we are out of the dry zone, but long term, I don’t know.”
Almy said while the lake has more water than it did a few weeks ago, the county water agency will not declare the drought danger over until the lake is full.
“In a year we could be right back where we were last year,” Almy said.
Before the rains, Wignot said, the Lake Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board was faced with the possibility of enacting serious water conservation. After four dry years, Fayram said, water usage from Lake Cachuma has to be decreased by 20 percent for the next two to three years. The extra 20 percent is replaced with water from Northern California and local ground water supplies. He said by using water from Lake Cachuma, they save $200 to $300 per acre-foot.
A severe drought could mean price increases in water, as well as water rationing for residents similar to the six-year drought period from 1986 to 1991, Almy said. Fayram said with current weather conditions, such problems have been delayed for at least a few years.