Never mind the puddles, dark clouds and little drops of water falling from the sky – California is currently experiencing a drought several years in the making.

According to the National Weather Service, Santa Barbara County has had 0.63 inches of rainfall since the New Year, a meager 15 percent of the average value for this point in the year. Furthermore, since July 1, 2008, the county has recorded only 51 percent of the rainfall that normally falls during that time period. Statewide, the NWS reported that precipitation levels in California were at a quarter of what they should have been for January.

The current drought, proclaimed ongoing by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 4, 2008, is expected to persist based on forecasts of far-below-average rainfall.

However, according to Rebecca Bjork of the Santa Barbara Water Commission, the county is not at risk of running out of water anytime soon.

“The state of California is in a drought,” Bjork said. “The city of Santa Barbara is fortunate because it is not in [a] water shortage.”

“We’re in the second year of a drought,” she added. “We usually start worrying in the third.”

She noted that although rainfall for the county has been below average, reservoirs serving the area “filled and spilled.”

Moreover, she said that if drought conditions continue or worsen, Santa Barbara is uniquely equipped with a backup plan: the Charles Meyer Desalination Facility.

“The best way to think of the ‘desal’ plant is as an insurance policy,” Bjork said.

The desalination plant was built between 1991 and 1992 at the end of the more severe drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s as a failsafe water supply for future water crises. Due to the high operational costs and lack of need, the plant has lain dormant since its completion and will remain so until the water commission deems its activation necessary.

If such a time arises, the plant would be overhauled with state-of-the-art equipment capable of processing seawater into usable freshwater at its 5,000 acre-feet – or 1,629,257,140 gallons – a year capacity.

However, Bjork explained, the water commission has no foreseeable intention of activating the desalination facilities. At current drought conditions, the water commission wouldn’t even consider opening the plant unless the drought reached its sixth year.