(NaturalNews) In the midst of ongoing and seemingly relentless drought conditions, one of California's important drinking water reservoirs has nearly run dry.
Lake Cachuma, a once-huge reservoir that supplies water to the city of Santa Barbara and surrounding areas, has shrunk dramatically – this summer, water levels dropped to an all-time record low of 7 percent capacity.
And there's little hope of relief. Levels are expected to drop even further by January – to the point where water can no longer be distributed from Lake Cachuma.
'A future without water'
This is bad news for the nearly half a million residents of Santa Barbara County who depend on the reservoir for drinking water and crop irrigation.
From The Washington Post:
"Barring a winter miracle of massive snows and rains extending into April, weather that has forsaken Southern California for more than five years, there will be 'no water available next year from the reservoir,' said Duane Stroup, deputy area manager for the south-central region of the federal Bureau of Reclamation.
"The entire Santa Ynez Valley will then face a future without water. The 3,000-acre reservoir supplies half of what the valley needs to recharge an underground aquifer that nearly every household, business and farm uses to pump water."
If the coming winter is as dry as the last, the wells will go dry and farmers will be unable to bring crops to harvest, said Bruce Wales, general manager of the local water conservation district.
Wales is concerned that the Santa Barbara area could soon face conditions similar to those in California's Central Valley, where 2,000 wells recently dried up, requiring the state to set up huge water tanks to supply residents with enough water to wash and flush toilets.
Scrambling for solutions
Smaller communities in the area are looking for alternative solutions to meet their water needs:
"The cities of Solvang and Buellton are making plans to tap alternative water sources. The community of Montecito is scrambling to buy whatever the state and private vendors can provide."
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara is deliberating a complete ban on outdoor water use, while residents anxiously await the completion of a desalination plant capable of turning 3 million gallons of seawater per day into drinking water.
As drought conditions worsen, the Santa Barbara area is expected to begin experiencing a negative economic effect. The county has long been favored by the rich and famous as a place to enjoy the good life, but the appeal is beginning to fade, as use restrictions mean less water for lush lawns, landscaping and swimming pools.
Santa Barbara County has long been a major drain on the state's water resources. Lake Cachuma was created in response to a major drought in the middle of the 20th century, and the reservoir was filled with water trapped by Bradbury Dam.
The reservoir, which took five years to fill, distributed water to Santa Barbara County via an "elaborate tunnel and conduit" system that delivered water to intake plants in the area and to an aquifer located in the valley.
Due to its use as a source of drinking water, swimming has always been off-limits in Lake Cachuma, but the lake was stocked with a variety of game fish and was popular among anglers, until the drought dropped water levels far below those of years past.
Even a mandatory 35 percent cut in water use ordered one year ago has not been enough to stop the steady decrease in the water level.
Desalination is only a partial solution
The desalination plant was built 20 years ago during another drought, but was never put into use, due to a relaxing of drought conditions. When it does finally go online, it will only provide about 30 percent of Santa Barbara's water needs, and critics argue that desalination comes with a steep environmental cost.
If drought conditions in California continue, many areas of the state face a very uncertain and worrisome future.