Without Cachuma, where does the water come from?

As Santa Barbara's main water supply dries up, water officials map out a plan

California’s drought continues to cause problems for Southern California’s cities and farms.

In Santa Barbara County, a reservoir that once supplied the county with over half of its water needs can now best be described as a puddle. Lake Cachuma sits at seven percent capacity and is expected to dry up by the end of December. 

This month, city council placed a ban on lawn watering effective January 1, in an attempt to boost the city’s conservation rate from 35 percent to 40 percent. 

“This is by far the worst drought we’ve seen in this area in recorded times,” said Joshua Haggmark, the water resources manager for the city of Santa Barbara. He and his team are in charge of figuring out what to do without the lake.

There are other water sources. However, like Lake Cachuma, they are not necessarily reliable.

There’s the groundwater basin which is currently being tapped for water. It, too, will dry up in the next couple of years if the drought continues.

There’s recycled water, but that’s currently reserved for big green spaces like schools and parks.

Water can also be purchased through the state water project, but that can be unreliable year to year and demands constant negotiation and political maneuvering.

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The city of Santa Barbara used to receive over half its water from Lake Cachuma. Starting in 2017, it will begin relying heavily on desalination and conservation. (City of Santa Barbara)

Finally, there’s Santa Barbara’s desalination plant.

Right now, workers are setting up a web of pipes and filtration systems to pump seawater off East Beach. If there are no further delays, treated ocean water will begin coming out of faucets by March (In Ventura County, water district officials are also looking at building their own desalination plant).

The desalination plant sits off Yanonali Street near Santa Barbara's Funk Zone. (City of Santa Barbara)
The desalination plant sits off Yanonali Street near Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. (City of Santa Barbara)

The desalination plant is set to provide the city with one third of its water needs, with the opportunity to expand if needed.

“It’s costly to do so, but that will be something we’ll have to consider if the drought continues,” said water supply manager Kelley Dyer.

Exactly how costly hasn’t been tallied yet. To date, the city has already paid $60 million for the plant.

Even with all of these options, conservation is still a dire necessity. City officials like Haggmark and Dyer continue to urge residents to conserve.

“Make sure your dishwasher is fully loaded,” suggested Haggmark. “Take a shower with a bucket in there to collect water to use on houseplants. Maybe use it to flush the toilet.”

Haggmark said the lawn watering ban could save 1,000 acre feet of water over the next year. To put that into perspective, an average family of four uses about half an acre foot of water a year.

Many residents have already let their lawns go brown.

“We stopped watering three years ago,” said Chuck Genuardi, who lives on Santa Barbara’s Mesa. “It was all dusty and pretty terrible.”

Now, he stands on bright, green, artificial grass that needs no water or upkeep.

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Santa Barbara homeowner Chuck Genuardi stopped watering his back lawn three years ago. He installed an artificial lawn earlier this month through EcoLawn, a Santa Barbara based company that’s installed over 300 water-free lawns since 2014. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

“I wouldn’t compare it to real grass,” said Genuardi. “It’s not this big, beautiful, lush, natural experience. But it’s soft, the kids love laying on it, and it’s definitely a great substitute.”

The state of California ended mandatory water conservation in May, but as the drought continues Santa Barbara officials are hoping that there’s more the city can do to save water.