Friday, June 23, 2017
[Santa Barbara County] County grand jury report questions water agencies' management of Cachuma Reservoir amid continuing drought
A recent Santa Barbara County grand jury report questioned the efficacy of local water agencies and their ability to collaborate effectively in managing local water supplies.
Aimed at addressing ongoing issues exacerbated by the drought, the report said there is "inadequate coordination" among local water purveyors. The report also listed a number of measures to help supplement water stores in the county or manage them more efficiently.
A focal point of the report is the Cachuma Lake Reservoir and the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB), a joint powers agency that oversees the distribution and transportation of the reservoir's water to its member agencies. The reservoir, which began in 1953 after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the Bradbury Dam, serves five different water districts in South County and in Santa Ynez.
While Santa Barbara County has posted 136 percent normal-to-date and normal water-year rainfall, the county is still classified as being under "moderate drought" conditions by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The Cachuma Reservoir's water level currently sits at a little more than 50 percent capacity at 97,648 acre-feet of water, according to the county's Public Works Department, after hitting a low of 7.5 percent in September of last year.
Tom Fayram, deputy director of county Public Works' Water Resources Division, said that while rainfall was promising across 2016 and early 2017, it only created enough inflow to Cachuma Lake to provide around 86,000 acre-feet. Rainfall throughout Cachuma's 900-square-mile watershed revive the creeks that flow into the reservoir, Fayram said, and this year's rainfall throughout the watershed was above average as well, but not by much. The Gibraltar Dam, a significant region in the Cachuma watershed, received almost 31 inches of rain this year, which, compared to years like 2006 and 1998 that exceeded 60 inches of rainfall, was nowhere near enough to fill the reservoir.
"We are not out of the drought. One year where we get a little respite of rain does not, in my mind, change anything," Fayram said. "It's very fortunate that we did get the inflow that we got because it did relieve some of the dire pressure we were under, but if we're not cognizant of what's happening here, we could easily be right back into that situation again. So conservation is as important now than ever."
Managing the precious supply of water concerns each member of COMB, but it also concerns the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which determines water allocations as well as releases for fish in the Santa Ynez River.
COMB's partners include the Goleta Water District, the city of Santa Barbara, Montecito Water District, Carpinteria Valley Water District, and the Santa Ynez Water Conservation District-Improvement District 1 (ID1). Each of the districts (except ID1) relies on the South Coast Conduit—a pipeline that runs from Cachuma through the Tecolote Tunnel—as their only source for water. The grand jury report pointed to the pipeline as "susceptible to single point failure," which could leave the entire south coast region of the county without water.
The Cachuma reservoir also receives supplemental water from the State Water Project, which pipes in water from the California Aqueduct. The South Coast region's access to state water also comes from Cachuma.
COMB General Manager Janet Gingras declined to comment regarding the grand jury report, saying that the board was preparing a public statement per the report's deadlines.
One of the report's findings said that COMB's meetings "do not adequately reveal to the public the competing and conflicting objectives" on the board, suggesting that COMB start televising and posting video of its monthly meetings.
The report also called out the Santa Ynez district for recent disagreements with COMB. The district protested COMB's 2011 agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation over controlled releases from the Bradbury Dam into the Santa Ynez River to support fisheries for the California steelhead trout, an endangered species.
"ID1 unilaterally terminated their relationship with COMB last year after a dispute over finances and management of the Fish Management Plan," the report reads. "Whether the ID1 actually has the authority to do so has not been determined."
According to Santa Ynez Water Conservation District General Manager Chris Dahlstrom, the grand jury report has "a number of errors" regarding his district.
"ID1 is not a recipient of any water from COMB, that's the first fact that needs to be straightened out," Dahlstrom said. "We receive our water from the downstream side of the dam through a historic pipeline that we put in in the '60s."
Dahlstrom said that his district joined the board's agreement as a "good neighbor" with the south coast members. But COMB is only responsible for moving water, he said, not making allocation agreements on behalf of water purveyors. That's why the district's protest over which entity should make allocation agreements with the Bureau of Reclamation came to a head last year, Dahlstrom explained.
The grand jury report also highlighted the lack of a single "enforcement power" over local water supplies, recommending that the county Public Works Department's Water Agency "be designated as the permanent lead agency" for the county.
Fayram from Public Works wouldn't comment on the grand jury report, citing the preparation of an official response.
The Santa Ynez district is working on its official response as well, Dahlstrom said, but he also expressed skepticism over the idea of a single county entity enforcing water usage.
"The county does not actually purchase water, supply water, disinfect water, treat it, or distribute it. They do not have the rights nor the contracts to do that," he said. "Nor do they have any customers. ID1 believes its position and its management of water supply is adequate, and actually, very satisfactory."
June 21, 2017
Santa Maria Sun
By Joe Payne