Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order in April 2017 declaring an end to the state’s drought emergency. As college football analyst Lee Corso might say — not so fast, my friend.
Brown’s order covered most of California’s counties, including Santa Barbara County. But the rest of the story is that the drought is far from over locally. In fact, county water managers are not even cautiously optimistic.
One county official warned recently that despite the governor’s assertion that happy, wet days are here again, they are not. Officials can follow that lead with some confidence, because the numbers don’t lie.
Here in the far North County, rain totals at the end of the season in August were considerably below normal. Santa Maria was among the driest communities, with a total of 7.84 inches, which is 55 percent of average, normal annual rainfall.
Cachuma Lake, which is the catch basin for storm water runoff, received just 10 inches of rain, or about half of what is expected.
Lompoc did a little better with 8.6 inches, but that’s still less than 60 percent of average annual rainfall.
OK, so we’re talking in terms of normal amounts, for a situation in which normal really doesn’t mean what it used to mean. For a more focused picture of what’s going on water-storage-wise, take a drive past Cachuma Lake on Highway 154. The reservoir has dropped to about 31 percent of its 193,305 acre-foot capacity.
If you were around in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, you know what a disappearing Cachuma water supply can mean. In that nearly eight-year drought episode, Cachuma — a main supplier of water for the South Coast and the Santa Ynez River channel — was literally a few weeks from being bone dry.
Scary stuff, and water managers are well aware of the threat, despite the governor’s apparent optimism about our water supply. In fact, water managers are on high alert because the current water level at Cachuma is less than it was when the county Board of Supervisors declared a state of emergency four years ago.
Another hint that all is not well with water supplies is that the city of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant continues to sit, but prepared to produce about 30 percent of the city’s water demand if necessary.
Barring extraordinary storm events this winter, the plant’s output likely will be needed. We remember the water panic on the South Coast in the early 1990s, a scare that compelled Santa Barbara voters to approve the desal plant, at a cost of millions.
Then came the rains in March 1991. Reservoirs — including Cachuma Lake — filled up, a crisis was averted and everyone seemed content.
But remember, this is California, where disasters, natural and otherwise, tend to dovetail. If it’s not drought, it’s wildfires, earthquakes or the Lakers not making the playoffs.
One of those disasters-in-waiting is the continuing drought situation in Santa Barbara County, something of which water managers are acutely aware. That’s why experts are warning water customers about the continuing drought situation, and encouraging everyone to use their water wisely. Gov. Brown’s lifting the drought emergency designation didn’t help. According to State Water Resources Control Board data, overall water use is back to pre-drought levels.
We can be smarter than that, especially those of us who’ve been in this region for any length of time. And remember Murphy’s Law, which is this — if something can go wrong, it probably will. That seems sort of negative, but it is what it is.