Home Emergency Management News Santa Barbara: Running on Empty

Santa Barbara: Running on Empty

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Life without Water

As inconceivable as it may seem, the wealthiest nation on earth has many communities that live without potable water. Some of them have been surviving this way for years now.

Among them:

  • Sand Branch, TX (pop: 400), which never had running water. Well water has been unfit to drink there for 30 years.
  • East Porterville, CA (pop: 7,300). Water troubles in East Porterville go back at least four years.
  • And the current poster child, Flint, MI (pop: 100,000), where we essentially did it to ourselves.

Next Up?

Well, per the Washington Post, the answer may very well be Santa Barbara County in California (pop: 436,000).

The Lake Cachuma reservoir, which supplies Santa Barbara County with its water, is currently at 7 percent capacity. That's not down 7 percent, that's a total of 7 percent. The lake may be too low to distribute water as early as January 2017--that's next month!

Sand Branch and its 400 people have apparently done well--or at least passably, otherwise there would be no Sand Branch. East Porterville and its 7,000 people have endured, while dedicated citizens and public officials have worked for a longer-term solution. Flint, well, the future is to be determined. Enthusiastic citizens--absolutely. Dedicated public officials--perhaps less so. History will judge.

But folks, 400,000+ people is a whole new ball game. Some of our great civilizations of the past have encountered drought and failed--among them, the Maya, and the Pueblo. Some have encountered drought and succeeded--among them, all of the desert peoples that currently inhabit the Middle East--with the caveat that their civilizations were irreversibly damaged by the lack of ready access to water. That lack of access is still playing out in emigration, war, and other coping mechanisms that would not need to exist if water were available.

Are we ready for Santa Barbara to face the next time when the taps run dry? Hell no. And the question then becomes: What are we going to do about it?

Applying EDM Principles to the Problem

Here is the way the five EDM principles would inform the various analyses & solutions:

Planning:  The heart of effective planning is to recognize and acknowledge reality. In the planning process, there's no room for unwarranted optimism, wishful thinking, or denial. After casting those aside, then the obvious solution presents itself: if Santa Barbara is to survive, then it must develop new sources of water. There's really only one viable solution, and it's the one being used in the Middle East, Australia, and other water-stressed areas: desalination. We may be out of groundwater, but we're not out of ocean. So let's tap the ocean.

Mitigation:  Mitigation is a hard sell to resource managers and politicians, because it deals with things that haven't happened yet. But we can all agree that having the taps in Santa Barbara run out of water would be a bad thing--so let's deal with it in advance. The best mitigation project that would deal with this potential crisis would be to replace dependency on aquifers, dams, reservoirs, erratic rainfall, drought, etc., with the constant supply of water available from desalinizing ocean water. Easy: no. Expensive: yes. Worthwhile: I hope so. I'd love to have the option of visiting or living in a vibrant Santa Barbara for the rest of my lifetime.  Wouldn't you? If you're local, wouldn't that be something that you'd love to leave your children?

Response:  Flint never envisioned that it would have to marshal resources to deliver water to homes and families. Are we capable of envisioning a requirement for water delivery to Santa Barbara homes and families? If not, why not? The requirement may be just around the corner. If history is any indication, if response is called for, then we will do it well. Of the five EDM principles, it's the one we do best. But the challenge is to never have to do it.

Recovery:  Let's hope we never have to do recovery. EDM only has to do recovery when all the other principles have failed.

Adaptation:  This is the crux of the matter. If we acknowledge that our water usage habits to date are not sustainable, and we had the will to replace those habits with other habits, as well as make the investments necessary to ensure sustainability, we would be accomplishing true stewardship of our beloved Spaceship Earth and a future for our society. Worthwhile? Your choice.

Food for thought as we approach the holidays. It's fine to give thanks for the bounty that we've been fortunate enough to benefit from. But at the same time, it's not fine to take that bounty away from our descendants. So let's work on that.

Running on, running on empty
Running on, running blind
Running into the sun
But I'm running behind
~ Jackson Browne (1977)

Randall Cuthbert Dr. Randall Cuthbert is a retired APUS Professor of Emergency & Disaster Management. He has also worked as a Red Cross Shelter Supervisor, and spent a 20-year career as a US Air Force Civil Engineer Officer. His blogging interests include: protecting & enhancing the EDM profession in the areas of integrity, honorable public service, and social justice; education regarding the 'big picture' role of EDM in our society; educating our professionals and neighbors with regard to the greatest threat to our civilization--climate change; and in general terms, creating a better world for our children and grandchildren.