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How California’s South Coast Is Still Coping With Severe Drought

Lots of rain and snow have pulled most of California out of drought conditions, but a small area near Santa Barbara is still experiencing severe drought and communities are adopting different strategies to tackle water security.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
A dock at Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County, California, sits on dry land as the reservoir is at less than 14 percent capacity.Tara Lohan

Remember those pictures of drought-stricken California, the ones that show dried lakebeds and bathtub rings around reservoirs? With precipitation twice the normal average in many places and a statewide snowpack in the Sierra Nevada at 173 percent of normal, those images are a thing of the past.

Except if you live on the South Coast.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows that less than 2 percent of California is still experiencing severe drought impacts, but that small area is concentrated in southern Santa Barbara County and parts of neighboring Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

While most of the state’s major reservoirs are near or above normal, Lake Cachuma, the biggest reservoir in Santa Barbara County, is 100ft (30m) from spilling. Early January storms gave it a small boost, but it still sits at less than 14 percent of capacity. At the lake’s marina, a long dock that used to float in the lake sits listless in the sand, and the cement boat ramp fails to reach the water.

A perfect storm of misfortune has put the region in a bind, but it has also set communities on a course to initiate new strategies for long-term water security, and they are doing so in different ways.

Rain Shadow

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The boat ramp at Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County, California, fails to reach the water. After wet winter weather, California’s drought has eased in most parts of the state, except the South Coast where severe drought conditions persist. (Tara Lohan)

Beginning in October, which kicks off California’s rainy season and the technical start to its water year, Northern California received above-average precipitation. And then in January it seemed to rain and snow without end, as the state was walloped with a series of intense storms known as atmospheric rivers. Virtually all of the state received some relief from drought conditions that have lasted more than five years – except this tiny swatch of the South Coast that seemed to get missed by the wet weather almost every time. Or at least its watershed did.

“Our rainfall totals are well above average, but the way that the geography is situated here on the coast near Santa Barbara is that we have a frontal mountain range that creates a rain shadow over the watershed when the storms hit in the direction that they did,” explained David Matson, assistant general manager of Goleta Water District, a neighbor of Santa Barbara. The few miles of land between the shores of the Pacific and the ridge top of the mountain have received rain, but where Lake Cachuma and the surrounding Los Padres National Forest sit on the opposite of the mountain range, it’s been extremely dry.

Joshua Haggmark, the water resources manager for the city of Santa Barbara, said that while the city is not about to run out of water, its backup supply is now gone and he’s worried about meeting peak demand in the summer.

“This year, that contingency [water] is gone,” said Haggmark. “The last time we got any water from our local reservoirs was in 2015. Otherwise we have been living off of what we could conserve from prior years.”

The city, which Haggmark said was already fairly lean on water consumption, increased its conservation to 35 percent and is now aiming for 40 percent. As of January 1, the city also enacted a ban on lawn watering with potable water.

Besides the near-empty Lake Cachuma, the city also uses the much smaller Gibraltar Reservoir, which finally started to fill and spill over in late January. That would be good news except Haggmark said ash and debris washing into the reservoir from a recent wildfire have currently made the water undrinkable.

“Every time I think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse,” he said.

Santa Barbara buys water from the State Water Project, which is funneled from Northern California and helps meet about a third of the city’s needs. “I had banked enough water in San Luis Reservoir to keep the state water pipeline coming to Cachuma full for the next two years,” he said. Neighboring Goleta and Montecito are also storing water in San Luis. But now the communities could stand to lose that water because the reservoir, which sits 275 miles (442km) north, is so full that some water may be released.

Santa Barbara, which has secondary priority, stands to lose a little more than 5 acre-feet (6,167 cubic meters) of water, which is about half the city’s water supply for a year.

Desalination Redux

A shuttered desalination facility in Santa Barbara, California, has been rebuilt and is expected to provide a third of the city’s water supply when the facility opens in March or April. The region still faces severe drought conditions as the state’s drought hits its sixth year. (IDE Technologies)

A shuttered desalination facility in Santa Barbara, California, has been rebuilt and is expected to provide a third of the city’s water supply when the facility opens in March or April. The region still faces severe drought conditions as the state’s drought hits its sixth year. (IDE Technologies)

If there is any good news on the horizon for the city of Santa Barbara it’s that they will soon have a new, local source of water.

A few years ago, in the midst of the current drought, the city decided to revive a “mothballed” desalination plant it had spent $35 million building during a drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The plant’s construction at that time finished just as the drought ended and it was shuttered before it became of any real use to the community.

Taking a 25-year-old desalination plant out of slumber and putting it back into production has required more than just dusting off the membranes. It’s been a multi-year process with a cost that has climbed to more than $70 million.

And while the city kept its permits current the entire time, little of the old plant’s systems are still usable. A lot has changed in desalination technology in the past several decades.

“The principal of the technology of reverse osmosis hasn’t changed. You are still pushing water through membranes,” said Gilad Cohen, CEO of IDE Americas, which is building the new plant and recently completed construction of the Carlsbad desalination plant near San Diego. “What has changed is the way you design the process in the sense of making it more affordable by reducing energy or being able to reuse energy in the process, and by reducing the amount of chemicals that you are using.”

The new plant, which sits across the road from the city’s water treatment plant and about a half-mile from the palm tree-lined beach, is advertised as using 40 percent less energy than the old desalination plant.

After some delays, the facility is set to open around March or April. Construction on the site is still in progress, but much of the facility’s treatment system arrived in container-sized prefabricated modules, something Cohen said is unique to IDE and also helps keep down site construction costs.

When fully up and running, the plant will provide about a third of the city of Santa Barbara’s water supply, producing 3,125 acre-feet (3.8 million cubic meters) a year with an annual operating expense of $4 million. The rest of the water supply portfolio is composed of one-third from the State Water Project, one-third from groundwater and 10 percent from a recycled water facility that produces nonpotable water for uses such as irrigation.

While the desalination plant will produce just over 3,000 acre-feet of water when it comes online, it could be expanded to produce up to 10,000 acre-feet (around 12 million cubic meters) a year if Santa Barbara can find other local partners willing to meet their price. Right now they are in talks with nearby Montecito.

Santa Barbara can’t afford to build out the plant’s capacity anymore on its own because it has already raised rates “dramatically over the last three years,” according to Haggmark, to meet drought-related expenses including the desalination plant, increased conservation and repairs to overtaxed groundwater facilities.

And he said, “It’s likely rates will go up again because we have asked for additional conservation and we are selling less water, but we have the same amount of expenses.”

Desalinated seawater is often the most expensive option per acre-foot for communities in California, according to a report from the Oakland-based water think-tank the Pacific Institute, although costs vary according to the size of the facility. And even Santa Barbara is not sure if it will keep its new plant online full-time. It has been designed to more easily be put in non-operation mode, for a cost of about $1.4 million a year.

Alternative Water Sources

Not everyone has welcomed the desalination plant with open arms.

Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, said her organization’s position is that desalination should be done solely as a last resort and only in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

“My position has always been that there are a lot of other alternatives out there that we really think you should be investing in – more recycled water, stormwater capture and ways to improve the efficiency of the water we already use,” she said.

Of the environmental impacts, even the more efficient new plant will still have large energy inputs, making it a carbon-intensive water supply option. And ocean intakes pipes that suck in water also kill tiny marine life.

The city says the wedge wire screens it is using are “recognized by the State Water Resources Control Board as a best available technology for screened open ocean intakes.”

But ocean intakes are not considered the safest way to capture water. Subsurface intakes are now required by the state where economically and technically feasible. However, the Santa Barbara plant had existing permits and was not subject to the new rules, although it did study the feasibility of using subsurface intakes.

Instead of building a desalination plant, Redmond said they would like to have seen the city transform the old desalination plant into an indirect potable reuse facility, where wastewater is treated to drinking water standards, but instead of being piped directly to the customer (called “direct potable reuse”), it is stored somewhere first, like a groundwater aquifer. Indirect potable reuse has been done in parts of Southern California, such as Orange County, for decades. And direct potable reuse may be on tap in the near future – it’s not currently permitted in California, but the state is expected to begin writing regulations for it, although the process could take years before being finalized.

Either way, wastewater is a plentiful resource. Santa Barbara Channelkeeper commissioned a report from a group of master’s students at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, which found that five wastewater treatment plants in the South Coast region send 13 million gallons a day (which is more than 14,000 acre-feet a year) into the ocean. Treating that water for drinking would eliminate pollution and create a new source of drinking water.

It’s something that Goleta Water District is considering. In some years the district gets 75 to 100 percent of its water from Lake Cachuma, but the lack of surface water in recent years means it needs to find other options for long-term planning. Desalination, however, isn’t one of them.

The community has a good-sized groundwater basin that provides its drought buffer, and its wells were recently put back into production after 20 years of being offline, said Matson. With Lake Cachuma so low, groundwater now supplies 50 to 100 percent of Goleta’s water.

Goleta was a partner with Santa Barbara on the old desalination plant but divested its interest. Matson said the water agency’s board does not have a position on desalination, but they are not pursuing it as a supply option.

Instead, they are looking at the possibility of doing direct or indirect potable reuse.

However, like desalination, it’s not a cheap option. “There’s no question it is expensive,” he said. “The drought has forced us to reevaluate all of our long-term plans in terms of how we are going to make the best use of our supply and how we will augment that.”

Nearby Carpinteria is also exploring indirect potable reuse, and Montecito may join up with Santa Barbara’s desalination effort. One thing is clear among South Coast communities: Diversifying the water supply to ensure long-term water supply reliability is a must.

“At the end of the day you need to diversify your water resources; you can’t rely on a single source of water to be your 100 percent source because in different years, and with climate changes, you need the flexibility to be able to balance your sources,” said IDE’s Cohen.

Haggmark agrees. “It continues to be our mantra that the key to drought resiliency is water supply diversity,” he said. “I’m not advocating that 100 percent of our water come from desal, but having a small percentage of our water coming from desal does make good water supply sense.”

He added that he also believes potable reuse may have a key role to play in the future. But whether it’s potable reuse, indirect potable reuse or desalination, many alternative water supplies will come with an additional cost: energy. Santa Barbara is currently trying to find ways to tap into more renewable energy for water facilities.

“We have been enjoying, for the most part, water supplies that have a very cheap energy input,” he said. “But with this diversification of the water supply portfolio, it’s going to come with the need for additional energy.”

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