Santa Barbara’s Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

In the late 1980s, California was experiencing one of the most widespread, severe droughts in its history – and Santa Barbara wasn’t spared. Lake Cachuma, the city’s main water supply was down to 50% capacity; the city enacted draconian water consumption laws, invested in a desalination plant, and signed on for “state water; and some residents even resorted to radical alternatives to green lawns, such as painting brown lawns green and putting in green concrete.

The US drought of 1988 was one of the worst droughts ever in the United States. It caused $60 billion in damage (between $80 billion and $120 billion for 2008 USD); during the spring, records for lowest monthly total and longest interval between measurable precipitation were set; and the concurrent heat waves killed 4,800 to 17,000 people in the U.S. and led to many forest fires in Western North America, including the Yellowstone fire. At its peak, the drought covered 45% of the United States. This seems minor when compared to the Dust Bowl’s 70%, but the drought of 1988 is not only the costliest drought in US history, it was the costliest natural disaster in US history, prior to Hurricane Katrina (Wikipedia: 1988 North American drought).

So, what’s the current outlook for Santa Barbara? According to the July 19 edition of the U.S. Drought Monitor, a whopping 81 percent of the lower 48 states are now experiencing “abnormally dry” to “exceptional drought” conditions, and about 64 percent of the contiguous U.S. is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, a record high for the 12-year history of Drought Monitor data. However, Santa Barbara’s rainfall this year (since January 1) has been 7.32 inches (average rainfall to date is 12.08 inches), Lake Cachuma is currently 83% full, and average local temperatures remain at a maximum of 74 and a minimum of 56 degrees.

Santa Barbara’s geography is responsible for its relatively balmy weather and current lack of drought conditions. The coastline runs east to west, an alignment which helps to moderate the ocean currents, and the area is climatically sheltered by nearby, inland mountains and, offshore, by the Channel Islands which break the force of ocean storms. But don’t take our climatic blessings for granted. Santa Barbara’s highest recorded temperature was 109°F in 1985, and nearby Goleta supposedly set a record in 1859 when the temperature hit 133°F (56.1°C), a record in the United States for decades until the U.S. Weather Bureau recorded a temperature of 134°F (56.6°C) in Death Valley, California in 1913 (see the October 4, 2010 article, “Goleta’s ‘Great Simoon’ of 1859”).

No matter how Santa Barbara’s water supply is impacted by climate, it makes sense to conserve this limited resource. The University of California, Santa Barbara achieved an overall reduction (potable and reclaimed) of 25% over the last 3 years, no small feat when you consider that the campus uses over 230 million gallons per year. UCSB achieved its results by, among other things, updating lawn sprinklers, installing waterless urinals and dual flush toilets, putting flow restrictors/aerators on water faucet taps and shower heads, using xerophytic and native landscaping, discouraging the use of bottled water, and employing reclaimed water to irrigate 93% of its campus. But you don’t have to be at UCSB to conserve water – try doing so on your own micro scale by using a bit of common sense. We can’t predict droughts in Santa Barbara, but, as the saying goes, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

Editor’s note: for more on local water conservation, see the May 29 article “A Small Grant and a Few Helping Hands Add Up to Big Water Savings”; for more about the current U.S. drought conditions, see Climate Central.

Article by Bill Norrington

Sustainability west_dm.jpg<|>670<|>Drought Monitor data for the western U.S. as of July 17—note that Santa Barbara is located in a dry area, 80% of which is currently considered “abnormally dry” (Source: Drought Monitor){|}image002.jpg<|>600<|>This graph shows the recent history of water usage in the City’s service area; one acre foot equals 326,000 gallons. As you can see, as severe drought developed during the late 1980’s, usage declined drastically. After the end of the drought in 1992, usage slowly rose to reflect water demand going back to normal customer usage (no rationing) with a continued water conservation ethic and the effect of the City’s ongoing Water Conservation Program. (Source:{|}786px-Farmer_walking_in_dust_storm_Cimarron_County_Oklahoma2.jpg<|>786<|>A farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. Photo: Arthur Rothstein (Wikimedia Commons){|}7-16-12_andrew_palmerindex2012.jpg<|>650<|>Save water! Over a billion people in the world struggle daily to find clean water to drink and bathe in. In the U.S., at least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or statewide water shortages by 2013, even under non-drought conditions. Currently, about 71 percent of the U.S. is now considered to be in the “abnormally dry” to “exceptional” drought categories, the highest percentage in the 12-year history of the U.S. Drought Monitor (source: Climate Central)