Mayor Rose Marie Sheetz contends that the council reflects the views of residents. While neighboring communities have strong environmental movements, she said, Morro Bay is populated mostly by elderly, retired people, and they are "less aware of the environmental situation and less willing to make sacrifices."
The situation is so critical that the City Council has been forced to act. At the next council meeting, Sheetz said, she will push for rationing and other extreme water saving measures.
During the past year, Santa Barbara residents have endured the state's strictest conservation laws--including a ban on lawn watering--and, as a result, have cut water use by almost 50%. Yet, without significant rainfall, the city could run out of water by next year.
One of the city's two reservoirs went dry last year, and the second, Lake Cachuma, is at 15% of capacity. Reservoirs throughout the Central Coast are at critically low levels--at 9% of capacity, compared with an average of 32% for the rest of the state.
Santa Barbara officials hope desalination will solve the city's water woes. Final environmental approval for the Santa Barbara plant is expected next month. It should begin delivering potable water by spring of next year. The water will be expensive--about $1,900 an acre-foot, compared to about $200 an acre-foot for treated reservoir water. An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons, considered a year's supply for two families.
Until its desalination plant is built, Santa Barbara, a city known for its lush gardens and expansive lawns, will continue to wither. Lawns are straw-colored patches of grass; trees are desiccated and dying. The hillsides north of town, usually covered with a deep green sheen, are the color of sand.
In Goleta, 12,000 avocado trees at Rancho Dos Pueblos died last year because of the drought. The remains of these trees, a huge mound of firewood, are for sale and piled beside a surviving orchard.
Goleta is counting on desalination to provide enough water to save its agricultural community. Along with several other local communities, Goleta is planning to buy desalinated water from Santa Barbara until its plant is completed. The city has hired a Vancouver law firm to determine if it is feasible to import water from British Columbia by ocean-going tankers.
San Luis Obispo also is committed to building a desalination plant, and Monterey is conducting a feasibility study. To conserve its dwindling supplies, San Luis Obispo has prohibited all commercial and residential construction, unless builders retrofit existing structures with water-saving devices that will conserve as much water as the new buildings are expected to use.
In Monterey, no new businesses are licensed if they use more water than a single-family home. This rules out all hotel and motel construction, large commercial projects and most restaurants.
Long before this drought, voters in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo rejected bond measures to raise money to build an aqueduct that would connect coastal areas to the State Water Project. Now, some residents, particularly those with business and development interests, rue that decision. Bumper stickers pushing for state water are proliferating around Santa Barbara. Water has been a key issue in recent political campaigns.
"If we already had state water we wouldn't be in this position now," said Steve Decker, treasurer of We Want Water, a group that is pushing a ballot initiative in Santa Barbara. "Santa Barbara is not the beautiful city it once was."
Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and a section of Monterey County, have long been partners in the project, which transports water through a series of dams and aqueducts in Northern California to water districts throughout the state.
Many residents and political leaders have traditionally been opposed to state water because they fear that greater water resources will result in more development, which would create new water shortages. Opponents also say the project is unreliable, and point out that state officials recently announced that they might reduce the flow of Northern California water into Southland cities by as much as 85%.
"Before the drought this issue wouldn't have had a chance around here," said Bendy White, a Santa Barbara water commissioner. "But we're facing a disaster, and people are scared. They want water, and they don't care where it comes from."
CENTRAL COAST RESERVOIRS--WATER LEVELS
Here are the major reservoirs in the Central Coast with their location and water levels.
Santa Barbara County:
1. Gibraltar Reservoir: 0% of capacity.
2. Lake Cachuma: 15% of capacity.
San Luis Obispo County:
3. Whale Rock Reservoir: 30% of capacity.
4. Salinas Reservoir: 0% of capacity.
5. Lake Nacimiento: 6% of capacity.
6. Lake San Antonio: 5% of capacity.