Keeping and Storing Montecito Water

By Bob Hazard   |   August 16, 2018

(Between now and Tuesday, November 6 [election day], members of the water and sanitary district communities, and other interested parties, will present various opinions on the subject of water and waste management. The views expressed under the imprimatur of this column – whether they are by candidates for the water or sanitary boards of directors or not – do not necessarily reflect the views of the Montecito Journal editorial staff.)

With our community on pace for the driest seven-year period ever recorded, it is more important than ever to look closely at every possible source of local water. The five biggest local water opportunities are (1) expanded desalination opportunities; (2) intelligent recycling of wastewater; (3) sustainable groundwater management; (4) greater water conservation; and (5) a mixture of possible new sources, such as partnering between districts; tapping into new local groundwater sources; graywater; and recapture of storm water.

What Happens without Water?

Humans can go without food for about three weeks, but without water, the human body begins to shut down after three days. Water lubricates our joints, regulates our temperature, and without it, you and your neighbors will be in big trouble.

Plants and trees do a little better. A few species can live can live without water for more than a year, but like humans, all will eventually die without water. Prolonged drought leads to scorched leaves, stem dieback, and greater susceptibility to pests and pathogens. The U.S. Forest Service notes that 102 million trees have died in California since 2010. I have lost five mature coast live oak trees on my own property since the start of this latest drought.

Conserving Water

Water conservation in Montecito has produced a 12-month running average of 38% reduction in water usage based on the state’s standard of water use in the baseline-year of 2013. This is one of the best conservation records in the state and should be a cause for celebration. However, the more water we conserve, the bigger the challenge for Montecito Water District (MWD) to achieve both financial and water security.

Sometimes, apparent reductions in water usage hide a bigger threat. For example, part of Montecito’s perceived 38% reduction in water sales can be explained by an increase in private well permits and drillings from residents fearful of drought, higher water prices, and loss of landscaping. Estimates now range from 500 to 1,000 private wells in Montecito, dwarfing the District’s 12 wells.

These additional private-well straws (non-plastic), inserted into our water basin, raise the chances of overdraft of our aquifers. If our basin goes dry in drought, private well owners will have no option except to turn to MWD, putting a huge new load on the District’s system. That is why the MWD Board must implement a new Sustainable Groundwater Management Plan to mitigate this type of potential disaster. More private wells dug means less MWD water use, less MWD revenue, a better MWD conservation record, but a dangerous situation for the community.

Conservation efforts can be misleading in another way. In January 2018, water consumption was down 65% from the 2013 base-year conservation targets, apparently a positive thing. Unfortunately, the cause for low usage in January was “unplanned conservation.” Residents simply used less MWD water in that month because they were evacuated into downtown hotels for showers, meals, and laundry, and they could not return home until the water supply was declared safe and restored after the January 9 debris flow.

Water Demand Update

With continued conservation, all of Montecito can survive on the collective use of 4,000 acre-feet per year of water, or roughly one acre-foot per year per household. An acre-foot (AF) of water is equivalent to a football field covered in water to a depth of one foot. It is also 326,700 gallons of water.

Historically, annual metered water sales for the Montecito Water District have ranged from a high of 6,518 acre-feet (AF) in 2007-08 down to a low of 3,127 AF in 2016-17, followed by usage of 3,783 AF this year (2017-18).

Water Supply Update

State Water Project (SWP). Traditionally, Montecito has relied upon an increasingly unreliable State Water Project, designed and built to serve the state’s 25 million residents who lived here in 1983. Today, that same system is asked to provide reliable water to a population of 40 million residents. A staggering one-fourth of the state’s population, or 10.3 million people, live in Los Angeles County alone.

SWP transports uncertain snowpack from the High Sierras in Northern California to the water-shy farms and urban centers of Southern California, via a thousand miles of surface reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, pipelines, and energy-hogging pumps.

Montecito’s entitlement of SWP is 3,000 AF per year, plus a 300-AF-per-year drought buffer. MWD pays a fixed charge of some $5.5 million, regardless of the amount of water received, plus a variable charge based on the volume of water actually delivered.

In practice, SWP has only delivered about half the water promised to Montecito, and as little as 5% (165 AF in the 2014 drought year). This makes SWP water unreliable when it is needed and hideously expensive when fixed charges are allocated over lower volumes.

Cachuma Reservoir Project

The Cachuma surface reservoir is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to store water from the Santa Ynez River watershed behind Bradbury Dam. The reservoir now stands at 37% of its 184,121 AF capacity. In years of normal rainfall, MWD expects an allocation of 2,651 AF of water per year. In periods of extreme drought, that allocation has been reduced to zero.

Water from Cachuma is diverted through the 6.4-mile Tecolote Tunnel to the headwaters of the South Coast Conduit, where it is processed at the Santa Barbara Cater Water Treatment Plant. Outflow of treated water enters the South Coast Conduit, operated by the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB), before delivery to Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito-Summerland, and Carpinteria Valley.

Cachuma suffers substantial water losses from surface evaporation, silting, mandated downstream releases, fish releases, spills, inadequate input pipe capacity, and the need for emergency barge pumping.

Jameson Lake

This is an open surface reservoir wholly owned by MWD. It currently stands at 62% of its full water storage capacity of 5,144 AF, or 3,168 AF. Despite silting and fire damage, water releases from Jameson Lake during the past 10 years have ranged from a high of 1,900 AF per year to a low of 350 AF in a drought year.

Purchase of Supplemental Water

Montecito has joined other water districts in Santa Barbara County to purchase supplemental water through the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA) from other water districts with excess water. As one might suspect, supplemental water purchases are lower in price in years of heavy rainfall, but availability dwindles and prices soar during periods of extended drought.

In practice, imported supplemental water purchased above the Sacramento-San Joaquín Delta often carries a carriage loss penalty, typically 25% of the water purchased. Supplemental water purchased below the Delta often carries an exchange component payback that equals the amount of water purchased, in addition to the price.

Local Groundwater

The combined annual safe yield for MWD withdrawal from the four storage basins in Montecito is 1,650 AF per year, according to dated studies. As part of its Urban Water Management Plan, MWD plans to pump 250 to 400 AF of local groundwater on an annual basis. A larger amount may be pumped on a short-term basis, particularly if MWD is able to naturally recharge its basins in wet years, and technologically recharge its basins in dry years, using indirect potable use injections of highly treated wastewater, or excess state water, or excess imported supplemental water to be stored underground and removed when needed.

The Water Security Challenge

The challenge for MWD over the next five years will be to successfully transition its water supply portfolio away from drought-driven, non-local sources such as State Water, imported supplemental water, and surface reservoir water and to replace these drought-vulnerable portfolio sources with affordable and reliable local sources such as desalination, recycling of wastewater, groundwater management, regional cooperation, recapture of stormwater, graywater, and conservation. Each of these challenges, or more appropriately, opportunities, needs to be examined more fully by MWD, the Montecito Sanitary District (MSD), the Summerland Sanitary District (SSD), the residents of both communities, and their neighbors on the South Central Coast.

The second challenge for the board is to address the problem of those aging and corroded pipes in the MWD infrastructure, which are now nearing their 100th birthday. Aging infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable to ruptures, leaks, and main breaks. The pace of replacement needs to be accelerated to move MWD into the 21st century. Funding long-term needed capital replacements is a fundamental responsibility of MWD management and its Board of Directors.


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