In Santa Barbara, Nary a Drop ...


SANTA BARBARA is taking tough measures to cope with a regional drought going on its seventh year. One such move is a lawn-watering ban, complete with ``drought officers'' who will cite offenders. Santa Barbara is the first city in southern California to take such a step, though nearby Montecito and Goleta are also taking measures that include putting limits on water use and fining those who exceed them.

The rest of California is not as hard put as the central coastal region. The snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which provides most of the water for much of the state, is said to be sufficient this year.

But the area from Monterey to Santa Barbara has been hard hit. Goleta mandated a 15 percent cut in water use; Monterey and San Luis Obispo County cut 20 percent each.

The need for such measures can be traced in part to Santa Barbara's decision 20 years ago not to tap the water supply going to Los Angeles, but to get its water from reservoirs and ground pumping. The move was an attempt to limit growth in the area. A vote is expected this fall on whether to build a new aqueduct to tunnel into the state water supply. The city is also looking into alternative water sources, including a desalination plant.

In the meantime, the Santa Barbara City Council is focusing on conservation. Last week it approved the ban on lawn watering to help cope with the 43 percent water shortfall. The council also voted to prohibit washing buildings, boats, and cars, as well as emptying and filling swimming pools. City drought officers hand out a warning for a first offense; a second offense carries a fine of up to $250. A fourth violation could bring a shut-off of the water supply entirely.

The last time lawn watering was banned in the state was in 1977 in Marin County, says Dean Thompson, staff member of the drought center at the California Department of Water Resources.

``These are emergency conditions,'' says Bill Ferguson, water development planner for the city. ``Lake Cachuma, [the city's main water supply], is under 25 percent of capacity.... Even a big rain wouldn't help much.''

Santa Barbara's City Council did not want this city's flora and fauna to dry up entirely. Trees and shrubs can be watered by hand using buckets or by a drip-irrigation system. Car washes that recycle water can still operate, and the golf course can keep its greens green until a system using reclaimed sewer water is in place.

Initially, the Santa Barbara lawn-watering ban will have a tremendous impact on gardeners, many of whom are low-income Hispanic workers, says Martin Senn, president of the California Association of Nurserymen's local chapter. But those who can adjust to working with drip-irrigation systems will stay in business.

``I used to mow once a week for my customers,'' says gardener Ray Cardenas. ``Now it's once a month.''

The ban also is bad news for Santa Barbara's nurseries. ``This will change people's thinking forever,'' says Steve Johnson, a sales representative for a Los Angeles plant company. ``Whether it rains or doesn't rain, this is going to change buying trends dramatically.''

Nursery operators in drought areas are ``more waterwise in the way we operate and in our attitude toward the customer,'' says Mr. Senn ``Nurseries are promoting more drought-resistant plants.''

Restaurants are also affected. Though business has generally not dried up, the customary glass of water is out of vogue. At the Beachside Caf'e in Goleta, a waiter apologizes because ``I can't give you folks water automatically. If I did, I'd get fired, and the restaurant would get a $500 fine.''

Residents have grown waterwise as well. Low-flow toilets, and water-saving shower heads and faucets are common. Yet, some say not enough has been done.

``Until people turn on the faucet and no water comes out, they don't take it seriously,'' says Jan Evans, vice president of government relations at the Santa Barbara Board of Realtors.

March water bills will, however, ``catch a lot of people's attention,'' says William Ferguson, director of Santa Barbara's water conservation department. Those bills are expected to rise from $18 to $76 a month, he says.

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