Kelley Dyer

I feel like I’ve been running a marathon; the drought is a slow moving emergency—you don’t know when it’s going to end.
— Kelley Dyer, Water Supply Manager Santa Barbara City
Kelley Dyer Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 26x34

Kelley Dyer Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 26x34

Kelley Dyer

Water Supply Manager, City of Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara's unique geography, situated between the mountains and the sea, along with its temperate environment and natural resources, have made it a beautiful place to live for millennia. Historically, even with relatively small populations that lived here, there always has been water supply planning to sustain the community.  During the Spanish era, the native Chumash, under the direction of the padres, built aqueducts to carry water from our creeks to support the needs of the Santa Barbara Mission. You can still see remnants of those aqueducts today in various places, including at Mission Creek Dam in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

Rainfall records of the past one-hundred years reveal great variation throughout this relatively short span of time, with anywhere from six to over 40 inches of rain, with an average of about 18 inches in Santa Barbara. The prehistoric record includes mega droughts lasting decades. Today, with a population of some 90,000 residents, the availability and cost of water are major issues.

The job of water supply and drought planning for the city of Santa Barbara is in the hands of water supply manager Kelley Dyer and her team.

"My job is to integrate the water supplies; we pull them together to meet the city's needs. The biggest issue is drought, not only for our area, but for the entire southwest region."

"Everyone is affected by the drought in some way; humans, plants and animals."

The thousands of trees that have died or are distressed contribute to increased risk from wildfires, which in turn impacts water supply. "When rains occurred after the Zaca Fire, the storage capacity of Gibraltar Reservoir was reduced by about 25%, we had massive sediment loading. I would like to see improved watershed management practices to reduce the risk of wildfire."

Water Resources

Major water supply sources for the City of Santa Barbara include two groundwater basins; surface water storage at Gibraltar and Cachuma, which are fed by the Santa Ynez River; the State Water Project coastal branch pipeline, which also feeds into Lake Cachuma; the seawater desalinization plant; and a recycled water plant, which was one of the first to be constructed in California. The City also has a long-standing water conservation program, which has helped to reduce overall water use since the 1980’s, despite an increase in population. Conservation efforts have helped limit the amount of water resources used to provide supply to the community.

During normal rainfall years, the City’s potable water comes primarily from surface water stored in Gibraltar and Cachuma. In dry years with low rainfall, the City turns to drought supplies which include groundwater, imported water from the State Water Project, and seawater desalination to replace surface water supplies that are not available. Each of the drought supplies made up about 30% of our water supply mix in the current drought, combined with extraordinary conservation. 

Even if Lake Cachuma is restored to full levels, the drought impacts will last for awhile. It will take several years for the groundwater basins to completely recover. In order to help replenish the basins, pumping will be reduced in wet years through conjunctive management with other water supplies. 

"There is not one answer for solving our water problems. Each local water agency will have unique challenges. A diverse supply mix has helped the City to sustain challenging periods when one or more water sources is not available. On the state level, there will be a focus on improving rainwater capture and surface water storage capacity, increasing groundwater storage and management, and potable reuse opportunities for the future. There is always a need to conserve, and it should be a way of life even after the drought subsides."

From Minnesota to California

Kelley's path took her from a Minnesota childhood to college in Colorado where she attended the University of Colorado at Boulder. Initially interested in chemical engineering, she became intrigued with water management and changed her major to civil engineering with an emphasis on water resources. Her first job took after college took her to San Diego where she worked for an engineering firm as a consultant. "I had a good mentor." When a position became available in Santa Barbara, she applied and moved here with her husband, Jack Dyer, who founded Topa Topa Brewing.

After our interview, Kelley mentioned that during the drought, some Ojai ranchers were struggling to feed their livestock because their grazing areas were barren, and Jack gave away all of the spent grain from Topa Topa Brewing to help them get through the drought. "Some of the chicken and steak that we have eaten was fed by spent grain from Topa Topa."

In addition to working hard in their respective careers of managing the water supply and crafting beer--as well as helping neighbors in need--this young couple also loves to spend time in nature; hiking in the mountains , mountain biking, surfing and sailing. "We dream of having a boat and sailing to the islands on weekends."

Reflecting back on her childhood, Kelley shares about her family. “My mother was a teacher, and always encouraged my pursuit of education in science and math. My father was a farmer, I remember him always talking about the weather. Now I watch the weather; I look for rain.”

-By Katherine Bradford


Notes on the portrait painting process:

“I spent some time exploring Surrealism before I started Kelley’s portrait.  I felt the philosophy of this art movement offered a creative way to convey the depth and breadth of water management in our region and California. We are governed by this resource.  Our future depends on how we manage water and our past was shaped by its access.” -Holli Harmon

 Surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in “an absolute reality, a surreality. -From the Surrealist Manifesto, by Andre Breton. 1924