We all know we’re in the grips of a vicious drought. According to researchers at the University of California, this is our driest winter in 500 years. But that doesn’t mean droughts are outlier events for California. As statistics from the state Department of Water Resources show, 40 of the last 100 years have been multiple year droughts of large extent.
California’s default climatic setting is thus semi-arid to arid. In fact, it was the 20th Century that was the outlier period for the state. Considered in the context of the past several thousand years, it was relatively wet and lush. Further, the current drought may be a mere preview of a far drier future: virtually all reliable computer models confirm that California will endure more and deeper droughts due to climate change.
Clearly, we have to accommodate ourselves to this new reality — and that means changing the way we consume water. There’s no need for panic. Even though water is and will remain a limited resource in California, there is enough for all if we plan carefully and use what we have in a responsible fashion.
The necessity for moving to a comprehensive water plan is especially acute in Santa Barbara County. Water supplies have always been particularly tight here. In the 1990s, we were assured by the state Department of Water Resources that the answer to our dilemma was the Coastal Branch, an aqueduct connecting us to the State Water Project. We all know what happened with that.
DWR promised the costs for the Coastal Branch would not exceed $270 million, and that the project would lock in reliable supplies. Now, almost two decades later, total costs — including debt service — have hit $1.76 billion. Deliveries have averaged only 36 percent of allocations, not the 97 percent reliability promised prior to voter approval of the project. We were in a water crisis before the Coastal Branch was built. We remain in one today.
So experience has taught us we can’t rely on massive expensive state projects like the Coastal Branch — or the Twin Tunnels, the newest proposed iteration of the failed Peripheral Canal — to achieve water security. Ultimately, our water problems are local problems, and our solutions will have to be local solutions.
Several options are open to us. Additional development of surface water sources, unhappily, is not among them. We have pretty well dammed everything that can be dammed. Given the likely impacts of climate change, surface water sources are going to be unreliable in any event.
For the long term, our best options are conservation, recycling, rainwater harvest (think cisterns) and groundwater desalinization. We also need to fold marine desalinization into our drought planning. Santa Barbara is lucky, in that it already has a desalinization plant ready for operation. When fully operational, this facility will produce 10,000 acre-feet of potable water a year — enough to meet the needs of almost 70,000 people.
Several million dollars are needed to fit the plant with new reverse osmotic membranes, and this should be a funding priority for our water agencies. Santa Barbara County is going to face real water shortages this year. Montecito residents probably will run out of water by July. We have no time to waste.
Moreover, we must consider expanding our marine desalinization capabilities. Yes, any such initiative would involve real fiscal and environmental impacts. But they do not pose insurmountable problems, and any alternative would be far worse. Building the Twin Tunnels, for example, would burden ratepayers with up to $100 billion in new debt, destroy the richest estuary on the West Coast of the continental United States, and convey no extra water to the south state. A mere fraction of that investment — say $400 million — could build enough marine desalinization facilities to meet the needs of 1 million citizens. Desal is the best drought buffer we have; it is local, virtually unlimited and can be employed whenever we need it and shut off when we aren’t in a drought.
In short, we have depended on the state of California long enough. We have secured precious little for our trust and our treasure. It’s time we relied on ourselves.
The author is with the California Water Impact Network. She lives in Santa Barbara.