Water & Drought

SLO County lake levels continue to sink amid drought

Nacimiento Lake, east of Paso Robles, is shown in April 2015.
Nacimiento Lake, east of Paso Robles, is shown in April 2015. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Water levels in San Luis Obispo County reservoirs have sunk below their historical averages, according to the most recent drought report from the county.

Most noticeably, Santa Margarita Lake, also called Salinas Reservoir, is at just 17 percent of capacity. Nacimiento Lake, east of Paso Robles, is at 29 percent capacity; Lopez Lake, in Arroyo Grande, is at 39 percent capacity; and Whale Rock Reservoir, near Cayucos, is at 43 percent capacity.

Sparse rainfall and lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada have contributed to the low levels statewide, county administrative analyst Lisa Howe said.

Locally, that means the Central Coast “remains the driest region in the western half of the U.S. over the past three years,” she said, adding that “the severe drought (now in its fourth year) is unlikely to abate much in the long term.”

For the residents who depend on these local reservoirs for drinking water, the current conditions mean cutbacks for some.

In a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Howe summarized the drought report, which included local efforts in drought planning and evaluating the region’s vulnerable water systems.

Her report also touched on Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent mandate to agencies to cut water use statewide by 25 percent compared with 2013, although some exceptions to various communities have been made since then.

The Board of Supervisors is slated to consider adopting the governor’s new rules on May 5 or 6, Howe said. The county is also taking several actions to reduce water usage in county-owned facilities, Howe said, including cutting back at county parks and golf courses, in new construction and lease agreements, and with fleet vehicles.

“It’s clear that the drought in SLO County and the state is far from over. We must maintain a culture of conservation and maintain careful stewardship of our local water resources as a way of life,” Howe said in a statement. “It’s up to each of us to do our part until we’ve weathered this drought.”

Howe also heads up the county’s drought task force.

Meanwhile, the task force’s anonymous online drought survey, intended to support the county’s request for federal disaster assistance for individuals, has received 91 responses.

Of them, 29 people have reported that one or more wells have gone dry, 12 people reported that they are trucking in water, and 66 people said they have heard of other peoples’ wells running dry in their area, according to the report.

It was one year ago in March that supervisors proclaimed a local drought emergency, Howe said.

In county service areas, cutbacks have already been implemented in Santa Margarita, Shandon and Cayucos, where emergency ordinances were adopted limiting outdoor watering and informational mailers were sent to customers as well as signs posted in their communities.

The county is also working to connect Shandon to the State Water Project, a process Howe says is progressing.

In Cayucos, the county also gave a water conservation presentation to the area’s advisory committee and business groups.

Meanwhile, Avila Valley water customers have an adequate supply from Lopez Lake and state water sources this year and next year, according to Howe’s report.

“While early winter storms provided an uptick in many of the state’s reservoirs, the lack of precipitation since those storms means that California remains firmly in a drought,” Howe said. “It would take several months of well-above-normal precipitation to erase the precipitation deficit which has accrued during the last three years.”

To date, rainfall is well below historical averages across the county. A station at Santa Margarita Lake has recorded only 9.74 inches, 47 percent of normal, while one at Lopez Lake has tallied a meager 6 inches, 26 percent of normal.

The historical water-level averages for the county’s reservoirs date to the 1980s and 1990s, except for Nacimiento Lake, which dates to 1959, according to the report.