Santa Barbara County: PG&E extends power for lake’s emergency pumping as drought threatens drinking water

By Tracy Correa Lopez
Los Padres Pumping

PHOTO: This barge sits on Lake Cachuma where the water capacity is barely 25 percent of its capacity due to the drought. (Photo by Tracy Correa Lopez)

Water at Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County is barely more than 25 percent of its 194,000 acre-feet capacity, a victim of the state’s lingering drought.

As the lake continues to dry up, some fear that its gravity-fed system won't work. That would mean no drinking water for roughly 200,000 residents in Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito and Carpinteria.

The Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board needed the ability to run emergency pumps to get water to residents. And they needed PG&E's help to get service to these pumps. Working closely with PG&E's Los Padres Division Leadership Team (DLT) — made up of local leaders from the utility's various lines of business — the urgent request was fulfilled within a short time frame.

"It was absolutely critical that PG&E understand that this is a lifeline system," said Randall Ward, general manager of the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board.

And PG&E did.

"It's ready to go now," said Ward.

The pumps have yet to be used, but it's only a matter of time. "It's not a question of if, it's when," said Ward, who thinks they might start running in July or August.

Work requested

The water board's request for service came to PG&E came in May last year.

Eric Daniels, a PG&E local government relations representative based in San Luis Obispo, helped lead the effort to get the work done.

"We had to fast-track and coordinate," said Daniels.

The DLT was the "secret weapon," said Daniels, due to its ability to coordinate between PG&E departments — from construction to service planning.

The DLT brings together departmental representatives who meet twice a month to resolve local issues before they become problems. There are 19 such local teams within PG&E's service area.

Through the collaborative effort, a planned electric upgrade project two miles away was fast-tracked to handle the anticipated load at Lake Cachuma. And, the project was expanded to get power out to the lake's pumps directly, explained Chris Wadhams, a PG&E electric distribution planning supervisor for Los Padres. (The mobile water pumps were now at a lower elevation in the lake due to reduced water levels.)

A project that would normally have taken more than a year was finished in months, completed by November.

"We really had to jump through hoops, including expediting permitting and environmental review… There were customers whose properties we needed to cross. But our division crews did a phenomenal job of working with customers directly," said Pat Mullen, the region director who leads the Los Padres DLT.

The sizable project involved not just the lake's board, but also the county and Bureau of Reclamation, so a fish hatchery wouldn't operate at the same time construction was taking place.

Collaboration leads to success

Mullen said there were many PG&E employees involved in the success of project, including Dan Rizzo, electric operations superintendent in Los Padres and Josh Jones, service planning supervisor. In addition to Eric Daniels, John Shoals, another local government relations representative, was involved early on.

The cost of the massive project — in the millions — was the responsibility of the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board. However, a $2 million state grant given earlier this year will cover a significant chunk.

The general manager for the board said he was impressed with PG&E, especially Daniels, who was instrumental in seeing it through.

In a letter to PG&E's Papia Gambelin, corporate affairs director for the Central Coast, and copied to State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson and local Assembly Member Das Williams and others, Ward wrote that Daniels "was more than just a PG&E representative, he extended himself to all those involved with project engineering, construction and oversight. He understood the impending public health and safety issue and reacted accordingly."

Ward also noted the coordinated "effort among the varying disciplines internal to PG&E to successfully respond to a project with a high degree of complexity and critical importance."

Added Ward: "We had a very good experience."

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