At the vanguard of Southern California cities affected by the drought, Santa Barbara is expected to impose mandatory conservation, and within a year, may also undertake the expense of restarting its long-mothballed desalination plant, according to city officials.
The expense of desalination makes it a last resort after other steps are taken. As soon as next month, the City Council is expected to take up mandatory conservation, which would include banning certain outdoor water uses, and as a disincentive, raising the cost of water at higher usages, said Joshua Haggmark, acting director of water resources.
After last week's rain, Santa Barbara City Hall urged property owners to turn off their sprinklers for two weeks.
The city's main source of water, Cachuma Lake, is now down to 39 percent of capacity. Santa Barbara has been replenishing the lake by importing water via the California Aqueduct. But that is being suspended temporarily by issues related to water diversion down the Santa Ynez River for the benefit of steelhead trout.
Santa Barbara has recently completed a new water well, and intends to expedite the drilling and plumbing of another new well in Alameda Park, costing around $2 million apiece.
"Definitely using more well water this year," Haggmark said, estimating it could double, and account for as much as 20 to 25 percent of the city's water usage.
But it's only a temporary remedy - perhaps two or three years by Haggmark's estimate before the groundwater must be recharged.
The city's drought plan envisions getting through five years of drought before having to resort to desalination. Restoring and updating the plant completed in the early 90s could cost upwards of $20 million and could take as long as two years.
Later this year, the city plans to seek plans and proposals, see if the next winter eases the drought, then make a decision next spring.
Currently, no Southern California city relies on desalination. A 50 million gallon-a-day plant now under construction in the San Diego County city of Carlsbad is expected to go online early in 2016.
For Santa Barbara, for now, the emphasis will be on conservation, particulary reduction of
landscape irrigation by replacing lawns with drought tolerant plants, said Alison Jordan, Santa Barbara's Water Conservation Supervisor.
The city recognizes it will be difficult for residents who have already xeriscaped their yards to achieve the city's overall goal of 20 percent reduction. They will not be penalized, Jordan said, and those with large lawns and other water intensive landscaping could be expected to cut back 30 or 40 percent.
When Christine Nolte and her husband moved into their current Santa Barbara home two years ago, during the first year of this drought, they did away with the yard, creating a courtyard of
flagstone and decomposed granite, highlighted with drought-tolerant plants and a fountain that recirculates its water.
Nolte said she would not mind paying a little extra for water if needed to cover the cost of desalination.
But not until after giving conservation a chance.
"I would first like to see people get on the bandwagon and change their landscaping," Nolte said.
Lacking groundwater resources, the wealthy neighboring enclave of Montecito faces an even more severe water squeeze than Santa Barbara.
Montecito has already imposed mandatory conservation, but the financial consequences
will not go into effect until the April billing cycle, March being informational to let customers know where they stand, according to general manager Thomas Mosby.
Preliminary analysis of the March meter reading reveals that 95 percent of Montecito's water users met the new water goals, Mosby said.
Meantime, California's Department of Public Health has removed 15 of the 17 districts it had put on a water watch last January, districts believed to be at risk of running dry of potable water in as soon
as three months.
Of the two districts that remain on the list, one serves nearly 4,000 in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, and another even smaller district serves a rural apartment building in Mariposa County, according to Public Health spokesman Matt Conens