Storms Bring Relief to Drought-Stricken California, but Santa Barbara Misses Out: Central Coast community’s plight underscores geographic and logistic vagaries of state’s water distribution

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—Tom Fayram admits to a fair amount of water envy.

“When you see flooding rivers in Northern California, you wish you could see some of that here,” said Mr. Fayram, deputy director of Santa Barbara County’s water resources division.

Yet Santa Barbara, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles along the state’s Central Coast, has been left high and dry compared with almost every other part of California this wet winter, showing the geographic and logistic vagaries of water distribution in this drought-plagued state.

California Drought Comparison: Intensity

About half the state has emerged from a six-year drought that prompted severe water restrictions on residents and businesses. Even Southern California, still stuck in drought conditions, has seen improvements as a parade of storms soaks the region.

But the rainfall has largely danced around Santa Barbara. Lake Cachuma, which serves as the largest supply of water for the county’s 450,000 residents, stood at just 14.4% of capacity as of Tuesday. By comparison, 82% for Northern California’s Shasta Lake and 86% for Southern California’s Castaic Lake.

Santa Barbara remains the only county in California listed as mostly still under extreme drought as of the end of January, according to most recent estimates by the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Mitigation Center.

Just 2% of California was listed in that category—including parts of neighboring Kern and San Luis Obispo counties—compared with 64% a year earlier.

That has forced Santa Barbara to continue harsh water restrictions while the rest of the state is easing them.

Surfers enjoyed the large waves at the entrance to Santa Barbara, Calif., harbor on Jan. 21, 2017. A winter storm brought much higher than usual waves to the area, but has failed to alleviate the drought that is still hurting the community there. PHOTO: MIKE ELIASON/SANTA BARBARA COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Jan. 1, the city of Santa Barbara put into effect a new ordinance that bans lawn watering, with limited exceptions, to cut water use to 40% from 35% last year.

The water situation for the rest of California, meanwhile, is largely much improved this winter. Electronic readings Tuesday by the state Department of Water Resources measured the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountains at 182% of normal.

That counts for as much as a third of California’s supply, meaning cities and farms that are part of a distribution network tied to the snow pack stand to receive most of their normal deliveries this year. Santa Barbara receives about a third of its water this way.

Water agencies in San Diego and Orange counties declared an end to local drought conditions in the past few weeks, and many are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to suspend emergency regulations that were adopted in 2014. Agency board members, while acknowledging drought conditions have greatly eased, voted Wednesday to extend the regulations through at least May, to reassess the situation when the California rainy season typically draws to a close.

Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a local environmental group, is seen at Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara. PHOTO: JAKE NICOL/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The U.S. Southeast experienced a severe drought last summer and fall that lowered lakes and rivers and hurt cattle ranchers and farmers. The extended drought sparked wildfires through southern Appalachia, including deadly blazes in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Winter rains have erased the drought’s impact in much of the South, but extreme drought remains in some parts of Alabama and Georgia, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Bill Murphey, Georgia’s state climatologist, said Lake Lanier, which supplies water to Atlanta, is still below normal levels, as is the area around the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. He hoped the region’s ground would be recharged with more rain in coming months before the drier, warmer spring and summer take hold, he said.

Santa Barbara’s water troubles, in part, can be traced to its location on the rugged California coast, where communities often have to depend heavily on rain and other local water sources because of the difficulty piping the Sierra Nevada water there.

The 17.6 inches of rainfall measured near the reservoir are only mildly ahead of normal; another 30 inches would need to fall to refill it, said Mr. Fayram of the county water resources division.

“We have a long way to go,” he said.

Santa Barbara started at a deep water deficit: a mere 63 inches of rain has fallen at a measuring spot in the local mountains between 2011 and 2016—far below the 93 inches that fell there during the previous worst drought, from 1986-1991, said Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager.

A DC-10 tanker dropped fire retardant at a low altitude to help combat a wildfire near Santa Barbara, on June 17, 2016. PHOTO: NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The city of Santa Barbara spent the last two years and millions of dollars banking unused state water in the San Luis Reservoir hundreds of miles away for an emergency. However, that reservoir has filled up so fast from recent rains that much of the banked supply will be lost by mid-February to spillage, Mr. Haggmark said. Under state law, banked supplies aren’t protected from spillage.

The city is completing the reactivation of a desalination plant it froze after another drought ended in the early 1990s. But that project has encountered cost overruns and is fiercely opposed by some local environmentalists, who call desalination too expensive and harmful to marine waters. Mr. Haggmark said the city turned to desalination as a last resort.

“It’s been like a perfect storm for us,” Mr. Haggmark said. “Things are really pretty dismal right now.”


Environmentalists say semiarid places such as Santa Barbara need to conserve and recycle more.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a local environmental group, recently obtained a grant to deploy used wine barrels for rain capture. Kira Redmond, executive director of the group, said other techniques such as converting sewage water to potable use must be deployed.

“I think that’s the wave of the future,” Ms. Redmond said.

Standing on a boat ramp overlooking the nearly empty Cachuma one day last week, Lauri Rawlins-Betta took in the arid landscape.

“This is so sad,” said Ms. Rawlins-Betta, 65 years old, who grew up near here and was visiting from another part of the state.

The county’s population has more than quadrupled since the lake was built 60 years ago.

“To me,” Ms. Rawlins-Betta said, “it’s overgrowth, big time.”

—Cameron McWhirter in Atlanta contributed to this article.