Ray Stokes was never a runaway performer. Stokes knows a thing or two about drought after 26 years as a resident Wizard of Oz managing the Central Coast Water Authority (which transports approximately 25,000 acre-feet of water each year from Northern California’s rivers to taps in Santa Barbara County). California now finds itself in the worst possible situation. “It’s very intense,” said the usually low-key Stokes.
Stokes was referring to last week’s decision by the State Water Control Board to limit deliveries to no more than 5 percent of authorized quotas. This means that the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA) will only be allowed to occupy 2,275 acre-feet this year. If the eight-member water agency that makes up the CCWA receives 100% of the authorized allocation, they will receive 45,000 acre-feet. However, most years, they get only half of it.
The latest cuts will even affect water utilities and large agricultural businesses north of the delta, from which Stokes has purchased “make-up” water during past droughts. These supplemental water sources — sent south through giant cobwebs of pipes and pumps that make the state water system invaluable even when there’s no excess water — saved Santa Barbara’s bacon during the last drought. It now appears that the last drought and the current one were part of what meteorologists call a larger “megadrought.”
Every other week, Stokes flies to Sacramento to look for a deal. He relies on the network of relationships he has built and nurtured throughout his life working in the gutter. This week, the CCWA voted to spend $30,000 to hire a special counsel to help Stokes find new resources. He said the city of Santa Barbara is looking for 2,000 additional acres; Montecito, another 1,000. “I would say this is worse than the drought of 2013,” Stokes said. “It’s a much more precarious situation.”
Statewide, drought is changing the face of California agriculture. Washington post According to reports, 400,000 acres of California farmland are now fallow due to the drought, resulting in an estimated loss of $1.1 billion and 9,000 jobs.
No wonder Gov. Gavin Newsom approved $22.8 million for drought emergency measures, mostly to spread the gospel of conservation. In Santa Barbara, however, city dwellers now consume about 25 percent less water than they did in 2013.
In southern Santa Barbara County, the dire situation is yet to manifest. The city of Santa Barbara has a desalination plant, and it now also supplies desalination plants to the Montecito Water District. Lake Kachuma is almost half full and covers 90,000 acre-feet. But that sounds more optimistic than it actually is. Of this, 11,000 acre-feet will be lost to evaporation and 8,200 acre-feet will need to be set aside to create habitat for the federally endangered rainbow trout. Thousands of acre feet must be released to replenish aquifers for downstream users. The remaining water is so dirty and cloudy that it cannot be processed into a drinkable state.
In the long term, Stokes believes the CCWA will need to manage its state water supply as if they were a “rainy year project.” Translated, that means the state’s water projects will deliver the most in the wet years when it’s least needed — as its critics have long argued. Agencies like the CCWA need to find places — underground aquifers — where they can park the state water supply during wet years, and then pump it when it’s dry. It sounds simple, but figuring out how to make it work is no mean feat. Meanwhile, Stokes said he was still looking for a new source of water. “I’m not giving up hope,” he said.
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