GOLETA, CALIF., JAN. 26 -- As the California drought enters its fifth year with no relief in sight, consequences of water shortages in the nation's most populous state have become so severe that the State Water Resources Control Board has called an emergency two-day meeting in Sacramento beginning Tuesday to consider drastic new restrictions.
But public officials in this drought-stricken coastal community northwest of Santa Barbara are not waiting for action in Sacramento. Last week, they approved a proposal to explore importing expensive water by oil tanker from western Canada to avert a severe shortage when the local reservoir runs dry next year.
The venture is one of three costly plans being considered or undertaken by water boards in this particularly dry region of California. Here, Santa Barbara is building a crash desalination plant offshore scheduled for completion this year, and another neighboring district has approved drilling 1,000-foot wells in nearby mountains in a desperate effort to find new water.
The plight of Santa Barbara County today may be the plight of California tomorrow.
"Santa Barbara today is Los Angeles a year from now," said John Deloreto, Goleta water board director and a supporter of the tanker plan.
Signs of the worsening drought include:
Record-low levels in hundreds of lakes and reservoirs. Evaporation has caused Lake Tahoe, bisected by the California-Nevada border, to fall to its lowest level in history. The Folsom Reservoir above Sacramento is down to 14 percent of capacity.
A warning by state officials that they may have to eliminate all agricultural deliveries from the gigantic State Water Project in this year and reduce residential deliveries to one-third of normal. The project is a principal source of water for the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 15 million customers in Southern California.
Water rationing in many communities for the first time since 1977, the worst drought year in California. Mandatory rationing is to begin Friday in Los Angeles, and many communities in the San Francisco Bay area have plans for rationing by as much as 50 percent this summer.
Acute cutbacks from federal and state sources for farming, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, already hard hit by a pre-Christmas freeze that cost California citrus growers and other farmers $850 million and resulted in 31 counties being declared a federal disaster area.
Exceptionally heavy tree damage. About 12 billion board-feet of timber, enough to build 1.2 million homes, have been ruined. One of every three trees in Tahoe National Forest has been lost.
Extinction of rare fish and wildlife species and possible loss of dozens of others. Salmon and striped-bass runs in northern California rivers are dangerously low. Deer and small animals have invaded suburbs in their search for water. Mountain lions and bobcats, which prey on them, have followed. Recently, a mountain lion was captured on the Sacramento State College campus in the heart of a residential area, and similar incidents have occurred in suburbs of San Jose and Los Angeles.
These signs are alarming, but officials are expressing greater concern at what is likely to happen if the dry winter continues. "I don't sleep well a lot of nights just thinking about it," said Suzanne Butterfield, the state drought coordinator.
After an emergency drought meeting Friday, State Water Resources Director David Kennedy said in an interview, "Our best case is a managed shortage. Our worst case is very serious shortages for everyone."
To reach the best case, a winter that has started as the driest in the century would have to turn abruptly wet and stay wet. California receives most of its precipitation in the winter months. Figures to be released this week will show that the state, which should have received nearly 50 percent of its annual precipitation by now, has received slightly more than 20 percent.
In the vast Sacramento Basin, source of most state water that flows to Southern California through a vast aqueduct, only five inches of rain have fallen since Oct. 1, when the 1991 water year began.
Even these statistics understate the seriousness of the drought. The ground is so dry in most parts of California that little of the rain that falls actually reaches streams or reservoirs.
In Santa Barbara and other central coast counties, the precipitation has been 21 percent of normal, with no runoff. "It's all just gone directly into the dry ground," said Doug Priest, manager of the State Drought Center.
The water shortage has been felt even in Los Angeles, traditionally insulated from consequences of the drought because of its multiple sources of supply from the Colorado River, the State Water Project, the Owens Valley and Mono Lake and ground-water supplies. This is the first year that the city faces reductions in all of its sources of supply.
"We're on the verge of big trouble, which we will start feeling by next summer," said Carl Boronkay, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District. "It's a very big challenge, because our predecessors had a margin for error and we don't."
California experienced seven years of drought in the 1930s, when scores of thousands of immigrants fled the "Dust Bowl" of the prairies to settle in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. But the state's population was then less than 6 million. It is now nearly 30 million and growing by 65,000 people a month. And the present drought is more severe, with the promise that this year could match that of 1977.
"The difference is that conditions in this state at the beginning of this year are what they were at the end of the 1977 year," Priest said. Heavy rains in the 1977-78 winter ended that drought abruptly.
A few optimists in water agencies throughout the state say that could happen again. In 1986, a year before the present drought began, a critically dry year was washed away by 10 consecutive days of flood-producing rain.
But in Santa Barbara County, no one believes that communities here can afford to wait for rain. Lake Cachuma, a Bureau of Reclamation reservoir in the hills 18 miles east of here, has only 29,000 acre feet of water in a reservoir that normally holds 190,000 acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water that will cover an acre a foot deep, or 325,851 gallons.
Engineers told the Goleta Water District Board last week that Lake Cachuma is likely to be dry by May 1992, spurring the board's exploration of three rival proposals to haul water by tanker from British Columbia. On Friday, the water board in Montecito, east of Santa Barbara, expressed interest in joining with Goleta to see whether importing Canadian water is feasible.
Henry Muller, chairman of the board, said Montecito also is examining other plans to buy water from another district, join in the Santa Barbara project or obtain water from a deep well-drilling project in the mountains east of here. He said a decision must be made by the end of March.
None of these proposals may come in time to save the Santa Barbara County avocado industry. Farmers attending the Goleta water board meeting pleaded for a decision on an alternative while orchards can be saved.
"I'm a fourth-generation farmer, and my back's against the wall," Alan Cavaletto said. "We need water any way we can get it."
Robert Almy, manager of the county water agency, said Santa Barbara County, while particularly hard hit because it receives no supplies from the State Water Project, is a "microcosm of California" in that it depends upon outside water to survive.
The cost of the water supplies it is seeking, whether from Canada or desalination, could be 20 times higher than the cost of water from Lake Cachuma.
But after a long period of practicing what Almy calls "the politics of brinkmanship" with water supplies, the choice in Santa Barbara County has come to expensive water or none at all. If the present drought continues, this also will be California's choice.