Kelley Dyer

Water Supply Manager, City of Santa Barbara


Alison M. Jones

NWNL Director and Photographer

Annette Alexander

NWNL California Representative

Santa Barbara CA - February 13, 2019


A History of Recurring Droughts



Sea Level Rise Impact on Desal Plant

Recycled Potable Water

A Future of Dams, Tunnels, Water Contracts?

Imported Water Supplies

Santa Barbara Water Conservation

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Introductory Note

This interview occurred at the end of a 7-year drought that severely impacted California from its Central Valley farms to its coastal cities from San Francisco south to Los Angeles and San Diego. Santa Barbara’s coastal position created unique drought impacts that have led to wiser choices and more preparedness to future droughts. Desalination [hereon referred to as “desal”] is a major new adaptation to recurring drought, now exacerbated by climate change.  After our interview, Kelley Dyer gave NWNL a short video on desal, prepared by the Public Works Department of the City of Santa Barbara, to share with our readers.

Desalination Plant in Santa Barbara CA (City of Santa Barbara)

Drought and Desalation in Santa Barbara, CA

NWNL  Kelley, how did you end up involved in desalination?

KELLEY DYER  My career has always been about water issues, and today I am the Water Supply Manager for the City of Santa Barbara. My education was at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I received a civil engineering degree with emphasis in water resources engineering. After graduating, I moved to California, which is an epicenter for water issues. I started out in flood-control management, but within a couple of years transitioned over into drinking water and designing treatment plants. I then got interested in more of the long-term planning and management, so started working on integrated resources plans. That involves working with community stakeholders to define planning objectives, and studying effective improvements in reliability, reducing cost, improving water quality, and reducing environmental impacts. This also involves pulling supply options, demand management and supply management options into portfolios for evaluation as to whether they meet planning objectives.

That really sparked my interest in water. I did that and consulting for quite a few years across the country, when I decided I really wanted to make an impact locally, right in my own community. I became interested in local government and joined the city of Santa Barbara in 2012, just in time for the drought!

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  Yes, just in time.  So, what can effectively and sustainable meet Santa Barbara’s chronic water needs – at an affordable price?

A History of Recurring Droughts

KELLEY DYER  Droughts are nothing new in Santa Barbara. We see that in the records on the Chumash Native Americans. They experienced droughts that periodically forced them to move locations. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has some information on this, and I think we have historical documents here at the City that cover that history back to the 1800s and 1900s.

Beyond the Chumash (who subsisted on fish), records also describe how some of the major droughts caused thousands of cattle to die because the pastures had dried up. Thus, some of the large cattle ranches that were in this area broke up and no longer exist.

Chumash Cave Painting (c. 1300), Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara Mission (est. 1786)

NWNL  Are there records of such efforts to conserve water or find reserve supplies for droughts?

KELLEY DYER  Some of the early responses to water needs were at the Santa Barbara Mission. Their original reservoirs and aqueduct systems were constructed in the late 1800’s and still remain. In the early 1900’s, there was additional supply from groundwater. Then the city decided to build Gibraltar Reservoir over on the other side of the mountains to meet its growing needs for water.

The drought cycles continued. A 1940’s major drought was the impetus for constructing the Lake Cachuma Project. The next one was in the 1990’s. That one was remarkable in that it led to our beginning construction of a desal plant. We also connected to the State Water Project and our recycled water system was constructed then. So that drought really was a driver for additional supply development. Droughts will continue, and this won’t be the last drought we ever see.

Now, we’re also faced with risks to our existing surface-water supplies. Our reservoirs along the Santa Ynez River are subject to sedimentation that really accelerates after fires and washes off debris and sediment. That accumulates in our reservoirs and decreases our storage capacity.

We also face impacts of climate change, which can affect our hydrologic cycles. That becomes complicated since environmental requirements in a new biological opinion for steelhead trout could affect our water supply. We’re also dealing with changes to the surface water supplies we used to rely on, so that needs to be re-evaluated. In this city, desal policy has thus far been to supplement our supply water only in droughts and emergencies, not under normal circumstances. But other factors affecting our surface water might change that.

NWNL  What would new and ongoing parameters for your desal use look like?

KELLEY DYER  Desal would be something we potentially might use more regularly from year to year, rather than just during the dry years.


Cachuma Lake after 5 years of drought, Santa Ynez Valley

NWNL  What about Santa Barbara’s local reservoirs?

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  I recently posted a beautiful picture of Lake Cachuma on social media with an innocent title of, “Yay, we’re at 46% capacity.” I then received a slew of technical data, supporting comments such as, “Yes, but we should have drained it” and “We should have taken all the silt out while we were at 7%.” The Gibraltar and Jamison Lakes also have that same issue, especially because of all the recent activities.  How can local residents research those issues?

KELLEY DYER  The Bureau of Reclamation is the owner and operator of the Cachuma project.Their offices are in Fresno.

NWNL  How do you face the issue of sedimentation in these critical reservoirs?

KELLEY DYER  We’ve looked at sediment removal, because Gibraltar is almost filled by sediment. It was originally a 14,000-acre-foot reservoir. (An acre-foot is basically one football field, one foot of water deep). In the 1940’s when it had silted up somewhat, it had about 8,000 acre-feet remaining, so the City raised the dam to restore it to its original storage capacity. Yet by 1989 or so, it had silted up again and storage was down to 8,000 acre-feet roughly. The City was going to raise it further, but was faced with a lot of opposition. So, enlargement of the dam was deferred, and the current storage capacity is now down to 4,500 acre-feet, and it’s just accumulating sediment.

We did one dredging project to try and remove the sediment during the last drought, but there was no disposal site big enough to put all the sediment. Our only places for disposal were near or right around the reservoir, and they filled up immediately. In the end, it looked like someone had taken their fingernails and scratched the bottom of the reservoir. There really wasn’t a dent on all the silt in there.

NWNL  I was just at the Carpinteria’s Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan Meeting last night.  They’ve been emptying their dammed debris basin – filled during last year’s mudslides – down to the beach, trucking it along a path nature would have used if there were no dam.  Would it work to move Gibraltar’s sediment to fortify the beaches against ocean storms and sea level rise?

Carpinteria Beach replenishment from Santa Monica Debris Basin

KELLEY DYER  We would love to. We looked at this issue, but our roads are not built for 18-wheelers up there, so we’d have to modify the roads. Plus, trucking that much sediment would cost about $150 million to remove a small amount of sediment. That’s prohibitive for us.

NWNL  Carpinteria sees their plan as an resilience adaptation that could save their beaches – an economic driver for their city – as they look forward to sea level rise in the future.

KELLEY DYER  We have other supply options that are more cost-effective. We’re still using Gibraltar as a water source. It’s still an active reservoir for storing water. It will always, I think, have some water available for us to divert, but we’ve lost all of that storage capacity, and we’re interested in looking at maybe putting in some silt wells.  If you can’t take the sediment out of the water, maybe take the water out of the sediment by putting in some wells and extracting it that way.  That concept is under development to see if it would work for us.

NWNL  So Santa Barbara geography is not conducive to reliable fresh water availability?

KELLEY DYER  It’s interesting when you look at a picture of Santa Barbara. We’re fairly isolated.  We have the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other.  So all of our surface water comes from the other side of the mountain.

Santa Barbara's steep mountain walls

KELLEY DYER  The only truly local sources in the city are groundwater, desalination and recycled water.  Everything else comes from the other side of the mountains, which poses a risk if we ever had a seismic event that severed the tunnels that carry the water through the mountains.  Hopefully, we could repair that pretty quickly, but it’s best to think about our local supplies: groundwater, desal and recycled water – as well as conservation, which has always been important in our community.

Santa Barbara threats include mudslides, droughts and fires


NWNL  So let’s get to desal:  its values, threats, consequences of those threats and solutions to those threats. Or perhaps more simply: the pro’s and con’s of desal….

KELLEY DYER The major pro’s are that desal is locally controlled and managed.  It is a reliable source of water that’s not hydrology-dependent. And it offers very good water quality for our customers. The water quality coming out of our new plant has been beautiful.

The cons are that it’s energy-intensive. I’d love to see improved technology to reduce its energy usage. Greenhouse gas emissions are extremely concerning for the City of Santa Barbara and its environmentally-conscious community. Given that desal is certainly one of the larger energy users, we’ve had to re-examine our city-wide energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions to try and meet our citywide goals. The City of Santa Barbara’s goal is “No Fossil Fuels by 2030.”  The State of California’s deadline is 2045.

NWNL  What about other con’s against desal?

KELLEY DYER While I would say energy consumption is our biggest problem, the brine can be an issue for some plants. However, we are fortunate to be located right next to our wastewater treatment plant. So we blend our brine with our wastewater-treatment plant’s effluence. Thus, the concentrations of the salt content are right at, near, or below natural ocean levels before it’s discharged.

Our intake also gets a lot of attention. When the plan was originally constructed in 1990, it used a screen with 1-inch openings. When we recently reactivated the plant, even though 1″ x 1″ openings are permitted, the city replaced that with a 1 mm x 1 mm screen. So now the openings are much smaller. Thus, only plankton or larval-type things can float in.

You sometimes hear about desal causing “sucking” issues. That’s not happening at our plant since the incoming velocity is less than the ocean current. Our plant sometimes is mistakenly compared with powerplants that have ocean-cooling systems.  That’s very different from the scale of our plant and what happens here.  The water coming into ours about matches the ocean current, so really plankton might float into our 30-inch-diameter pipe.

NWNL  Because you’re next to the wastewater plant, your brine effluent goes directly to the wastewater plant to be diluted. As the old adage says, “Dilution is a solution to pollution.” You have talked about the current benefits. How do they compare to the desal begun here (but not finished) in the ‘90s? And how would you compare community reactions then and now?

KELLEY DYER  It’s a very similar situation. That drought began in March 1989 when there was no plan for where needed supply would come from.  Everyone worried that Santa Barbara was running out of water, so the city was looking at all kinds of options.  Actually Goleta, Santa Barbara, and Montecito all partnered on a temporary emergency desal plant, built as an emergency measure.  There was some relief, and then it rained.  After the drought ended in 1992, the plant wasn’t needed, because we had all of our surface water supplies.

Montecito and Goleta decided to walk away, but the City then said, “This isn’t our last drought. There’s going to be a day where we need desal again.” They decided to make it a permanent part of their water supply and went through all of the permitting.  The focus of the permitting process in the 1990s was to make it a permanent facility. It wasn’t really needed until this latest drought.

We are now just coming off the seven driest years in recorded history. So, in this record drought, we decided to reactivate the desal plans in 2015, and it’s been producing water since 2017. It’s still running right now.  I think that it has saved us in this drought. That was a lot of foresight by the community to recognize that we’d have another drought cycle, and eventually need the supplies again. Having all of those permits in place, having the property secured, and having all the major infrastructure meant all the hydraulics were in place for us.  That enabled us to respond to the current drought as quickly as we did.

NWNL  I recall that somethings had to be replaced, such as filters. And I heard that the choice of replacement was really actually fortuitous, because there’s new technology.

KELLEY DYER  Exactly. There’s newer, more efficient technology.

NWNL  Is this some of the most advanced desal along the coast of California?

KELLEY DYER  Well, on the coast of California, there are only two desal plants in operation: The City of Santa Barbara, and then the San Diego County Water Authority.

Lake Cachuma (Santa Ynez Valley) in recent drought (2014)

Sea Level Rise Impact on Desal Plant

NWNL  The desal plant is just a few blocks from today’s shoreline. Are there any concerns about damage from sea-level rise?

KELLEY DYER  The community is very concerned; and we currently have a committee studying sea-level rise.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  Do you remember the proposal for the famous “Blue Line? The residents and real estate agents were going to paint blue lines all over Santa Barbara indicating possible extent of sea-level rise incursions.

KELLEY DYER  That was Helene Schneider who, while not mayor at the time, wanted to draw that to raise awareness.  It didn’t work out at the time, but today’s models of sea-level rise have turned out to be very similar to that Blue Line.  We now have a bunch of maps on the city’s website for the sea-level-rise committee. They’ve identified the risks for a 2.5-foot increase and a 7-foot increase in sea level. They’ve studied how would that affect flooding downtown and are developing a plan to address that.

Our desal plant is in the zone that is subject to flooding – as is the wastewater treatment plant, so we will look at making some improvements to protect both of them from flooding and creating a long-range plan.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  I trust the data today much more than I did back then. The Blue Line proposal was so random and seemed to pop up in a day. Nobody even knew if it had any science behind it.

NWNL  At the Carpinteria Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan meeting last night, there were some very upset people asking, “Are we going to be forced out?” They were in a panic about their property – and I can understand that.

KELLEY DYER  This time the city is being cautious, because it doesn’t want to scare everyone.

Drought challenge in Matador TX, 2012

Recycled Potable Water

NWNL  Let’s return to wastewater recycling.  I hear San Diego does wonderful recycling of Black Water, the so-called “Toilet to Tap” water.

KELLEY DYER  They’re one of the big leaders in potable reuse.  They’ve been working for decades on adding additional treatments to highly-treated wastewater to purify it. It’s as clean as it can get – actually cleaner than the water most people drink today. But decades ago,  there was no public support for that project decades ago, because of that “toilet-to-tap” aspect.

NWNL  Ah, “The yuck factor!

KELLEY DYER  Yes, but I think people now have come around and better understand the water cycle, recognizing recycled water’s purity is better than the water they’ve been drinking. This is particularly so in San Diego where the water is piped from the Colorado River and the State Water Project. They’re at the end of the watershed, so they already get someone else’s wastewater in their drinking water.  What potable reuse, in San Diego in particular, is doing is processing it more efficiently and adding higher levels of treatment to it.

NWNL  I had a chance years ago to drink some recycled water from Singapore in plastic bottles at a conference. A presenter explained the process, and then said, “I have some here if anybody wants to try it.”  The whole room signed; but I thought, “I can’t promote recycled water without drinking it myself!”  So, I took a bottle, removed the top, and I sniffed!  You just can’t help it the first time; but was absolutely the best water I’ve ever had.

KELLEY DYER  It’s the highest level of treatment, and actually not that different from our desal plant treatment process.

Santa Barbara now drinks treated Pacific Ocean water. Next? (Photo on L: ©City of Santa Barbara)

KELLEY DYER  We’ve been studying potable reuse. In a feasibility study a couple of years ago, we found that direct potable reuse is a potentially viable option for us, but the state has not developed uniform regulations to allow it. What San Diego’s been doing is called indirect potable reuse: after the water is purified, it’s put it into an environmental buffer, either a groundwater basin or a large surface water reservoir. It’s then retreated and sent to the system.

That large buffer gives it time, so that if anything did go wrong with the treatment, operators could shut it down before it got into the drinking water. Direct potable reuse replaces that buffer with a mechanical buffer by sending it just upstream of our surface water treatment plant. The state’s been fairly cautious with regulations, because they want to make sure the community would be protected from any sort of operator error.  They really don’t want the very first project to be something that goes wrong.

NWNL  Why would Santa Barbara not do the indirect environmental buffer?

KELLEY DYER  We looked at that, and our groundwater basins are just so small.  In order for us to have any meaningful yield, we have to install about 20 additional wells. If you look around our downtown area, we have a hard enough time siting one well, not to mention 20 wells that have to be separated by the right distance between where recycled water is injected and where it’s taken out.  We are quite limited, versus much larger groundwater basins where there are fewer space constraints.

NWNL So San Diego has much more space. 

KELLEY DYER Yes, Orange County Water District is a huge groundwater basin, and they’ve been doing indirect potable reuse for years.  I think even Carpinteria and Goleta are looking at it.  They’ve got larger groundwater basins. It might be more viable for them, but our Santa Barbara basins are just too small. So we think direct potable reuse will be more viable, and also probably more cost-effective, for us.

A Future of Dams, Tunnels, Water Contracts?

NWNL  What plans do you have for future technologies like brine removal or new energy alternatives that you’re excited about?

KELLEY DYER  We do have plans. The original desal plant used a lot of energy, but the current plant now uses 40% less energy.

NWNL  Your original energy use was 7.3 kilowatt hours per acre-foot, but it’s now down to 4.4 – right?

KELLEY DYER  Yes. Our three most energy-intensive sources are desal, imported water from the State Water Project, and recycled water. Our surface water from Cachuma and Gibraltar Lakes are extremely energy-efficient, because it all flows by gravity. Plus, we have a hydroelectric plant that generates electricity from Gibraltar. Those are the benefits of our surface water.  Their energy use is much less, but not quite as reliable.

NWNL  Are there plans for any new dams?

KELLEY DYER  Not on the Santa Ynez River.  I think the state is looking at Sites Reservoir, and the Bureau of Reclamation is looking at increasing the size of Shasta.  Those would occur at the state and federal level, but not at the local level. I’ve seen a lot of shifts in being proactive to get some projects done that have been on the books for a long time.

Construction of Santa Barbara’s Charles E Meyer Desalination Plant (©City of Santa Barbara)

NWNL  I read this morning that your new governor is for a single tunnel rather than twin tunnels.

KELLEY DYER  The tunnel project has been a challenge, because there was no support on the federal contractor side. Then the state looked at downscaling the project. My opinion is if you’re going to build one tunnel, you may as well build two, because then you have redundancy in the system, even if just for making repairs or a maintenance bypass.  If you’re trenching anyway, cost to do two versus one is usually not that more.

NWNL  Many have vehemently protested the Twin Tunnels scheme – and its cost to Californians.

KELLEY DYER  Yes, so at this point, I think the proponents want to reduce costs however they can.

Actually, I’m watching to see if the state amends our water contracts. Currently you can’t really sell your state water to another state water contractor. It has to be an exchange.  We did many of these during the current supplemental water purchases.  But now, for every 4 acre-feet of water we buy, we have to return 1 acre-foot over the next ten years, due to required exchange components.

The state’s working towards removing that, so that if you didn’t need your water, you could potentially just sell it somebody else who does. That would open up many more possibilities and opportunities for water management in California. The twin tunnels would provide increased reliability, but also increased costs for agencies that didn’t want or need that water. The exchange would give them the opportunity to sell it to someone else who does. Those amendments are critical in allowing agencies to sell water to each other.

NWNL  So given all these moves, what are future predictions for Santa Barbara?

KELLEY DYER  Santa Barbara will be updating our long-term water supply plan in the next couple of years. It will have to account for climate change, changing environmental requirements to our surface water, and sedimentation.  We’ll have to look at all options. As we develop our plan for the next 30 years, we’ll reevaluate the role of desal, future potable reuse, future groundwater banking opportunities.

Our last plan was done about ten years ago, and already much has changed. It’s so important to update plans at least every five to ten years. The previous droughts of record were 1947 and 1952, and we had a plan for them. But this drought that came around was the worst in recorded history – and was much drier.  Our plans had addressed the long-term water-supply, drought supply and surface water. As droughts continue, the surface water diminishes; and so we would need more state water and groundwater. Desal wouldn’t be needed until after the sixth year.

NWNL  How accurate have those water supply plans been?

KELLEY DYER  That was actually what just happened. We had much less surface water than we had planned on, but we had our policies in place. Even though things turned out a little bit differently timing-wise, we were able to adaptively manage and respond to the situation, because we knew that when our surface water becomes diminished, we could increase our groundwater pumping.

We relied more on state water, and we reactivated desal. We also called for demand reductions from the community. Our plan for a 10% to 15% demand reduction was considered the acceptable level of shortage.  In the current drought, we had to go up to 40% – and the community responded.  We knew what our toolkit was, even though we had to accelerate it, because of the severity of the drought.

NWNL  Will use of desal increase? Will it be a bigger part of the pie?

KELLEY DYER  I don’t know. We’ll have to see what happens with the biological opinion. We are meeting our needs for right now. We’ve got 30% conservation, about 30% desal, and imported water is about another 30%. Then groundwater is the 10% for our potable supplies. We have our recycled water system as well.  Those are just rough percentages.

NWNL  Will that split be maintained?

KELLEY DYER  It changes from year to year. Those rations will be maintained if the drought continues. But this year is off to a great start. If Lake Cachuma starts spilling, then we will not rely as heavily on state water, groundwater or desal. We’d be looking at putting the Cachuma plant in what’s called a “ready-state standby mode” – where it’s not producing water, but it can be brought back online.  Our water sources are very dynamic, not only on an annual basis, but even on a monthly and a day-to-day basis.  Our desal plant is running right now, but it shuts down for a few hours here and there for maintenance. So, at any given moment in time, I can’t tell you for sure exactly where your water’s coming from.

With this newer desal plant, we are able to pickle the membranes by putting them in a solution to preserve them.This is part of the plant’s planned operation.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  So it doesn’t ever have to go down completely?

KELLEY DYER  No, we don’t have to dismantle the plant like we did before.  We can just put it in a sleep mode.  Obviously, we need to go to City Council for approval, but I think the current interest is to keep it at its standby mode.

Imported Water Supplies

NWNL  Talk about reliance on the city’s imported water supplies in the future.

KELLEY DYER  Right now, the state water is more expensive, because we’ve been going out for supplemental water purchases.  That really added to the cost of state water.  When we have an allocation that’s less than 100% from the State Water Project, we’ve filled that gap by purchasing water from various agencies – recently from the Mojave Water Agency – to help us meet our needs. But that’s also quite expensive.

When we first went into this drought, the whole water-purchase market was brand new for us.  That’s something we had not had to do here before, and it evolved. I remember the very first water purchase.  There was an open bid; you submitted your price into the agency that was selling water; and then they went with the highest bidder. I think it was an avocado grower, maybe with almonds, that ended up winning the bid. We didn’t even get close. After that we thought, well, we’d better get a water broker, so we hired a broker with relationships with agencies all over the state that would match water sellers with water buyers. So, through that deal we bought water from rice farmers north of the Delta.

Avocado, fruit and nut trees need water year-round – unlike rice (in center photo) 

KELLEY DYER  Rice takes a lot of water to grow, so I always thought it was odd that we had so much rice in California. But it’s a great crop for us, because you can grow it when there’s enough water, but you can fallow it when there’s not. It’s very different than the tree crops that we have where if there’s no water, you can’t fallow the trees for a year.  You have to keep watering them for them to stay alive.

NWNL  That was a huge issue during this last drought. We documented forward-thinking farmers taking out healthy almond trees to make room for seedlings, because the old ones use much more water than the little ones, and the latter would produce more later on.

KELLEY DYER  I like the rice, because it helps for our water management – and they had to go through a whole environmental study, because the rice crops are a bird refuge. As a result, they had to checker their fields for migratory patterns.

NWNL  Walk us through the map.  When you bought the rice farm water, it came down through the Delta. How is it routed after going through the Delta?

KELLEY DYER  It goes through the Banks Pumping Plant, and then travels hundreds of miles via the State Water Project Aqueduct. It diverts at our coastal branch turnout near Shandon; goes around San Luis Obispo; and then enters Santa Barbara County, ending up at Lake Cachuma.  It travels a very long distance, which is why rice water is so energy-intensive. Pumping is required because water is heavy. It takes a lot of energy to push it that far.

The Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant at the beginning of the California Aqueduct

NWNL  Do you have other alternatives for importing water?

KELLEY DYER  We were able to purchase that rice-farming water, but it wasn’t the most reliable, because we worried about whether it could get here in the State’s assigned timeframe for transferring that water through the Delta. After that we ended up changing our approach.  Our Central Coast Water Authority is the purveyor of state water to Santa Barbara County. Given their relationships with other state water contractors, they’ve found water exchanges south of the Delta that are more reliable for us. That’s how we got into the Mojave Water Agency.

It’s really involved, and there wasn’t really one way to do this. Water was a brand-new market for a lot of people, and it initially came down to who was willing to pay the highest price rather than who needed it the most. Then it evolved into something that worked better for us so we got what we needed at a price that we could afford.

NWNL  It’s interesting that the contracts are given to the highest bidder, rather than to the community with the most need.  Is this a concept that people need to rethink?

KELLEY DYER  The State did try to do something. They created a “turnback pool” where agencies willing to sell their water put it all into this pool for the State, which would divvy it up. But the way that they divvied it up was based on a city’s contract maximum.

Santa Barbara represents less than 1% of all the contracts.  Metropolitan Water District (in the Los Angeles area) is 2 million acre-feet; and we’re about 3,000 acre-feet. So we only get that percentage from the turnback pool. Maybe 40 acre-feet would be available to us when we needed 1,000 to 2,000 acre-feet. It was an attempt, but it wasn’t enough to meet our needs.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  When was that 1% put into place as that maximum amount that we could have no matter what?

KELLEY DYER  That’s part of our contract that Santa Barbara County Flood Control District entered into with the State Department of Water Resources back in the 1960’s for what’s called “Table A Water.”  Table A that shows what your maximum delivery would be. So Santa Barbara County had around 60,000 acre-feet under contract. At the time, Santa Barbara didn’t have a way of receiving the water, though, since there were no facilities.

Sometime between the ‘60s and the ’90’s – I’m not sure which decade – Santa Barbara County had a ballot measure for bonds to build the facilities. It failed, so then the water purveyors in the county said, “This is an important supply for us.”  Let’s put it on our own local ballots and see if we can fund it that way.” Santa Barbara was one of the areas that voted yes to pay for facilities, but it was only up to a portion of the total contract—it was 45,000 out of the 60,000 that was contracted, so we’ve only been getting 45,000 of the original contract amount. That’s when Central Coast Water Authority [CCWA] was formed, basically to build and operate the facilities that bring imported water to Santa Barbara County.

Santa Barbara Water Conservation

Succulents and cactus offer great Xeri-scaping accents

KELLEY DYER  I’m so proud of the conservation in our community. I personally feel that desal should only be done with diligent conservation. We did not build the desal plants so people could continue watering lawns in this area, and residents been very good about conservation, which has been wonderful.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  A number like 30% reductions in water use, right?

KELLEY DYER  Yes. In the ‘80s, we studied demands before the last drought, and then a  huge drop-off during the drought. Then as the drought ended, water-use restrictions were lifted, and usage gradually climbed back up over about five years.  But it never went to what it was before.

Now, here we are today in this current drought where we had the same drop-off. I don’t think that our demands will ever go back to what they were before this drought, because people have made some permanent changes in how they use water. There’s sort of a new normal in residents’ behaviors. Our current water use is about the same as it was in the 1950s, even though our population has almost doubled.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  That’s significant.  Do you think there are isolated places in Santa Barbara County that are higher or lower than the 30%, reduction?

KELLEY DYER  I think Montecito kind of gets a bad rap sometimes, because if you look at the per-capita water usage, they’re quite high. But I also don’t think that’s necessarily fair, because they have very large lots. When you look at water use per capita, their level will never be as low as Santa Barbara’s, just because the lot sizes are so much smaller here.

View of Montecito's Miramar Beach and the Santa Ynez Mountains

NWNL  Would the city change to computing water use per acre, rather than landowner?

KELLEY DYER  I would love to see that new metric. But it has not been done. So since we still do not take into account lot sizes, the higher density areas are going to have much better numbers.  If you’re using lot size as a metric, we’d have much lower use per capita.

We offer rebates and assistance for xeri-scaping. Our whole conservation group has done town halls and people come. They provide a free service to evaluate customers’ properties and water usage, outdoors and indoors if requested. Recommendations then follow.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  There’s no charge for that?

KELLEY DYER  No. And we offer rebates if there are measures that can be done to reduce water use. Our robust conservation program was first established in the ‘80s. It was one of the very first and a leader in developing conservation, best-management practices that are now used by the state and other California agencies.

ANNETTE ALEXANDER  It’s so California and so Santa Barbara.

NWNL  Santa Barbarans say this is where the environmental movement started 50 years ago.

KELLEY DYER  Yes. People are very aware of the issues here and were very responsive when we’ve asked them to reduce water use. Most discretionary water use is outside of home – or you could say, about half of residential water usage is for landscaping. The problem is that when people are sleeping at night and their irrigation system goes on, they can’t see if it’s targeting the intended spots, or whether there are leaks or breaks. So that’s the easiest place to cut back, although I also appreciate folks placing buckets in the shower to collect excess water.

We have a lot of opportunity, I think. I don’t think conservation’s going away. That’s going to be a way of life, but with desal and potable reuse, there are some really exciting opportunities for local water supplies that are reliable and replenishable.

NWNL  Kelley, it’s been a treat to learn so much from you today. Good luck with your current management and future protections of Santa Barbara’s water supply!

Drought-tolerant gardens are catching on!

Posted by NWNL on July 19, 2019.
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.

Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.

All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.