Lake Cachuma is almost dry, grand jury finds

Boating and fishing venue provides water to Santa Barbara region, but contractual obligations are “outdated.”

SANTA BARBARA — A popular destination for recreational anglers and boaters in the Santa Ynez Valley has not been able to keep up with California’s drought and changes must be made to how water must be managed at Lake Cachuma and other similar venues, according to a Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury Report.

Lake Cachuma, which is in central Santa Barbara County, was at the point of spilling in March 2011and was designed to withstand seven years of drought conditions. However the lake is “virtually dry” now and Lake Cachuma’s water supplies are “over allocated.”

“Now is the time for all member units of the Cachuma Project to work together to maximize efficiency in using the available supply of water,” grand jurors stated in their report.

Grand jurors stated Lake Cachuma has been overused since reaching its tipping point in 2011.

“The lake was last full to the point of spilling in March 2011 and after four years, the lake was virtually dry,” the grand jury report stated. “This reality indicates that the contract is outdated. The maximum supply of water on paper is not the actual supply available, and the supplies from Lake Cachuma are over allocated.”

Water managers in Santa Barbara County were urged by grand jurors to be more fluid in predicting dwindling capacity and levels at local reservoirs and downstream demands. Federal requirements to maintain fish habitats must also be factored into future contractual agreements for water supplies to Santa Barbara’s coastal communities.

“This contract renewal must determine a new operating mode whereby water is distributed on a sliding scale based on the number of consecutive dry years, rather than the current practice of allowing each member unit to assume that a specific volume of water will be available to them every year,” grand jurors said. “The contract should require more frequent reviews to address changing water needs.”

Lake Cachuma provides about 85 percent of the water for 250,000 nearby residents and about 340,000 acres of agriculture.

“Unlike groundwater, State Project Water, recycled wastewater, or desalinated water, the water from Lake Cachuma is a shared local resource and its use must be managed efficiently, cooperatively, and without regard to local political pressure,” grand jurors said.

The grand jury’s complete analysis of the Santa Barbara’s current water issues can be viewed here.

The lake was established as part of the Cachuma Project, which was built to be “‘the long-term solution’ for the south [Santa Barbara] coast’s increasing water problems,” grand jurors stated in their report.

“[The Cachuma Project] was intended to address the water needs of the growing population and the expansion of agricultural occurring throughout the 1930s and 1940s,” the report continued.

Lake Cachuma is required to retain at least 12,000 acre-feet of water – referred to as a dead pool – to protect the waterway’s natural habitat.

“Since its formation, Lake Cachuma has become a very popular recreation destination. It provides camping, fishing, picnicking, hiking, and boating activities. The Cachuma recreation area, administered by the Santa Barbara County Parks Department, has approximately half a million visitors a year. The lake has become a valuable environmental and recreational resource for the community,” grand jurors stated. “The lake and park area have become home to a variety of fish, plants, wildlife, and birds, including bald eagles.”

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