The City Council is just one day away from declaring a stage 2 drought.
Along with mandatory conservation, the city is considering sending water through residents' taps by using saltwater off the coast.
Santa Barbara has a more than two decades-old desalination facility that was built and shut down in the 1990s. To restart the plant, it would cost around $29 million.
If the rain clouds stay away, city officials said, Santa Barbara residents will need desalinated water by 2017. That's seawater with the salt taken out, producing fresh water. But the process is pricy.
"That's what we've been kind of reiterating with the public why we are proceeding cautiously with this. However it is our next-most reliable resource right here, right off the coast," said Joshua Haggmark, the acting water resources manager.
Restarting the existing plant would not only cost an estimated $28.75 million, it would take $5 million a year to operate. But with no rain and dwindling supplies, it's an expensive project the City Council is moving forward with to keep the water flowing.
"A lot of upgrades are needed, but we want to make sure we do it right, we want to make sure we are efficient in how we do it, and we want to make sure we are in compliance with all types of regulations," said Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.
One of the first checks written to get the facility started is to an engineering company to help figure out all those details.
"We're actually hoping to have some real costs on what reactivating the desal might look like to the average ratepayer, so we can all kind of get on board with where we are headed with this, because this is obviously, like we've said over and over again, this is a very expensive venture to head down," said Haggmark.
More than $900,000 will pay for the study which will be ready in September.
There are details the city knows now, like the price tag for the much-needed water.
"The cost of desal is five times greater than the cost of regular water coming from (Lake) Cachuma," said Schneider.
Water is measured in acre-feet. One acre-foot is 325,851.429 gallons.
Before the drought, it cost $600 an acre-foot. Currently, with the city buying the water and having it delivered, it costs around $1,300. But with the desalination plant, it would increase to $3,000 an acre-foot.
Even with the seawater-to-freshwater conversion, Haggmark said conservation would still be necessary.
The current plan is to put water pumps about 3/4 of a mile off shore, just to the east of Stearns Wharf. But how those pumps are placed is still up for debate.
One way is to have the water taken from the open ocean to the desal plant -- pumped through a screen that filters out most sea creatures. An environmental nonprofit, however, wants what's known as a subsurface intake.
"It's underneath the sandy bottom, and the sea water goes down, pulls it through up here and up to the land," said Susan Jordan.
Jordan is the director of the California Coastal Protection Network. She believes the city is moving too quickly with the project and needs to look at how the desalination plant would affect the marine life.
"Open ocean intakes just literally suck in the ocean water and everything that's in it. Fish, larva, all the cycle of marine life gets sucked into the plant, and basically it's mortality," she said.
The state is coming out with desal guidelines in about a month, and Jordan wants the city to hold off until then.
"It's not like I'm trying to come in and say, 'Don't do it here,' here is home for me," she said.
Haggmark said Santa Barbara needs to stay the course to get the plant up and running in time, and will make adjustments as needed when the draft guidelines are released.
"We're moving along that path, and I'm not looking to go out there and destroy any environment. The city is just as, if not more sensitive to the environment and how we interact with the environment. Particularly when we're looking at making it into our drinking water source," he said.
City officials will head to Sacramento Wednesday for two days of meetings with the Coastal Commission, State Water Resources Control Board, Ocean Protection Council and the Central Coast Regional Water Resources Control Board to talk about the city's plan and possible new state regulations.
"What you want to be doing is be consistent with that policy so you don't head down one road, only to reverse course," said Jordan.