The annual drawdown of Cachuma Lake to help virtually all water users along the Santa Ynez watershed has begun. The release started Monday at Bradbury Dam, and is expected to continue for about three months.
Over that period, a total of about 10,000 acre-feet of water is expected to be released. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to meet the needs of the average annual water requirements for about six people in normal urban settings.
The release has been going on since the 1950s, just after the lake was created by putting a dam at the top end of what became Cachuma Lake, which is the South Coast’s primary supplier of water. There are other sources, but Cachuma is the big, usually-robust backbone of the system.
And that backbone may be a little stressed by the time the required water release ends in the fall. As of last week, the reservoir was holding 72,429 acre-feet of water, or just more than 37 percent of its 193,305 acre-foot capacity. The combination of South Coast water use and the water-rights release to the Santa Ynez and Lompoc valleys will reduce the lake’s level to about 58,000 acre-feet by the end of October.
Even though the release affects mostly South Coast residents, we mention it for a couple of reasons.
First, as the water makes its way to the Lompoc Valley, some roads that cross the river may become temporarily impassable. So, drivers beware.
Second, because the world’s climate is changing, maybe it’s time to rethink the release requirement. The watershed needs the recharging, to be sure, because it helps residents, well owners and farmers along the watershed’s path. But one has to wonder what will happen when we suffer through another long drought. Climate scientists say California and other western states’ drought situations likely will only get worse.
North County apparently doesn’t have the kind of concerns about water supply that plague the South Coast. Santa Maria water users need about 12,000 acre-feet a year, and city officials say about 4,000 af will be pumped from the ground, and 8,000 in state water has been ordered.
This region’s main source is the Twitchell reservoir, which is not currently in an overdraft situation.
Six years of drought ended last winter, but it’s already starting to dry out again. This is a pattern that is likely to keep repeating itself, and experts warn that epic mega-droughts are a probability in California’s future.
All of which argues for a coordinated, cohesive water policy for this entire region. Water is, after all, one of the things we absolutely cannot do without, along with air.
The recurring water shortages also compelled several local governments to sign onto expensive deals to be part of the State Water Project, a decision that in some cases ignited a firestorm of criticism.
But you really need to look at this from the water providers’ perspective. How angry would water customers be if an epic drought slams us, and there is little or no water to be had?
We live in California, so clearly we like to live dangerously — because we keep relying on blind, uncontrollable luck and Mother Nature’s whimsy to keep us alive and fully functioning. Eventually, our luck may run out. And everyone knows Mother Nature can be demonically capricious.
Water agencies tend to be territorial, but the important fact is that we’re all in this together. We need a collective strategy for dealing with whatever the future throws at us.