Santa Barbara has one of the best water conservation rates in the state. It's not uncommon to see lawns like this around the city. - 

Cities all over California have been trying to save water as the drought drags on. Most have made progress in getting residents to use less water. But public officials also fear this winter’s El Niño could wash some of that progress away. 

In the city of Santa Barbara, they’re no strangers to weather whiplash and how that can change drought strategy. During a severe drought in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, the city built a $35 million dollar desalination plant to convert seawater to drinking water. But it never got beyond a pilot phase. It started raining again and Santa Barbara ended up closing the plant.

In March of 1992, it rained so much they called it the “March Miracle.” Former mayor Sheila Lodge said it was the right decision to shut it down. “We did run the desal plant for six weeks,” she said. "But the reservoirs were full. Desalinating water takes a lot of power so it’s expensive.”

Desalinating power is still expensive. But the city is now spending over $50 million to reactivate the plant. Are officials here worried that once El Niño sweeps through this winter, it’ll be déjà vu, 1992?  

Santa Barbara is set to reopen its desalination plant this fall. It's part of the city's long term strategy to diversify its water resources. - 

“I do hear, 'Well, the last time you put the desal plant up it rained,'” Mayor Helene Schneider said.

But Schneider insists this time’s different. The city has promoted the desalination plant as part of a long term strategy to diversify the city’s water sources. “We have a much better understanding today than we did before of the cyclical nature of droughts and certainly with climate change the severity of the drought,” Schneider said. "That’s different. The severity and how fast Lake Cachuma shrunk.”

Santa Barbara gets a lot of its water from nearby Lake Cachuma, but even with the latest El Niño rains, lake levels are dangerously low.

Madeline Ward, the city’s water conservation coordinator, admitted a strong El Niño season could complicate the city’s drought strategy, but as of this week she said she hadn’t received any strong pushback about the desalination plant or conservation efforts.“We do have a lot of questions about El Niño and I think people tend to get a little distracted and they might lose focus on the long term,” Ward said. "So if they want to focus on rain, then we want to shift their focus to capturing the rain.”

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Joshua Haggmark, the city's water manager, along with Mayor Helene Schneider and conservation coordinator Madeline Ward say desalinating water from the Pacific Ocean will help ensure Santa Barbara doesn't face water shortages in the future. - 

Besides, the city’s conservation habits have become more entrenched since the last big drought, Ward said. Indeed. Back in the early 90’s, the city actually had water police patrolling the streets to make sure residents weren’t watering illegally. This time that wasn’t necessary, city officials said. And a controversial, albeit limited fad of painting lawns green is now laughed at.

One thing hasn’t changed,though. Former mayor Sheila Lodge had exhorted residents back then to follow her lead and shower less often. Lodge, now in her 80’s, is still following her own advice.


Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner