Looking for Water Solutions

By Bob Hazard   |   March 14, 2019

In this community, business-as-usual is no longer an option. Separate silos for water and sanitary decisions are as dated as hula hoops. Why? Water in all forms is one of our most fundamental resources. Increasingly, communities are realizing a need for districts to work together on water solutions that deliver more efficient use, integrated management and replenishment of our precious water resources.

Santa Barbara County Plan

The Santa Barbara County “2019 Integrated Regional Water Management Plan” encourages individual districts to work together to develop regional strategies to protect communities from drought, improve water quality and develop local water supplies that reduce our dependence on imported water.

Participants in the County planning process include water districts, wastewater treatment districts, stormwater management experts, water quality monitors, and flood control professionals from all eight incorporated cities (Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang, Guadalupe, and Santa Maria) plus 14 unincorporated districts, including Montecito Water District, but not Montecito Sanitary District.

Cuyama, Los Olivos, and Vanderburg Village have combined their separate water districts and sanitary districts and have added flood control, water quality, water efficiency, groundwater management and salt and nutrient management into a single Community Service District, eliminating separate silos and improving efficiencies.


Carpinteria Valley Water District and Carpinteria Sanitary have joined forces to develop and build the Carpinteria Advanced Purification Project (CAPP) to recover 1.1 million gallons of recycled water each day, or 1,100 acre-feet per year (AFY), which equates to 25% of Carpinteria’s annual water needs. According to Bob McDonald, General Manager of the Carpinteria Water District, their new jointly-developed water recycling plant would treat wastewater to nearly the quality of bottled water. The treated wastewater would be injected into the Carpinteria groundwater basins for indirect potable reuse (IPR). After being stored underground for several months the water could be recovered as potable water for home use. The two districts are currently seeking state funding.

Replenishing depleted aquifers with treated wastewater is environmentally responsible. McDonald believes it will also be less expensive for Carpinteria to turn wastewater into drinking water than to import state water or build a desalination plant. 

Santa Barbara

Even as Santa Barbara’s new $70 million desalination plant opened in May 2017, city officials rushed to secure a $5 million property for a future water recycling plant nearby. According to Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara Water Resources Manager, “Recycled water has the potential to make up fifty percent of the city’s future supply.” 

California Wastewater Treatment

Some 417 billion gallons of wastewater are generated each year by the state’s 57 wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Pacific Ocean or its bays. On the South Coast, five separate wastewater plants generate 9.3 billion gallons per year, piped offshore and deposited into the ocean. Modern treatment technologies can turn wastewater into safe drinking water.

Orange County has been a leader in advanced wastewater recycling. Municipal wastewater is passed through micro-filters and reverse-osmosis membranes, then disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide, then percolated into a ground basin. The end result is purer than tap water. Every advanced municipality in California is planning for wastewater reuse. Currently, priority funding is given to new projects that incorporate recycling and water reuse.

After a two-year public review process, the State Water Resources Control Board decided in March 2018 that treated recycled water can be added to California’s 36 surface water reservoirs, which are the source of California municipal drinking water. The State Water Board is now working on regulations for “direct potable reuse” where recycled water is added directly into a drinking system. These rules are expected to be finalized by 2023. The Water Board said it funded more than $748 million worth of recycling projects last year. A sensible recycling plan, endorsed by multiple districts, could generate $20 to $30 million in state funding for Montecito; without joint support, Montecito gets nothing.

Montecito Water District (MWD) 

During the last two years, the MWD Board has embraced a 100% change in its water strategy. Gone is the idea that MWD needs to accept the status quo. In the past, MWD has relied on imported State and supplemental water for up to 80% of its water portfolio. State water delivery hinges on an aging conveyance system that carries uncertain snowmelt from the High Sierras, ships it to southern California via canals, pumps and pipelines through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the California Aqueduct and the South Coast Branch Connector. From there it goes to surface dams and reservoirs like the San Luis Reservoir and Lake Cachuma—and then on to the Cater Treatment Plant and Montecito.

Originally designed to serve 25 million people, the State Water Project is now being asked to provide reliable water – rain or no rain – to 40 million people. It has become overpromised and under-delivered. Its system of surface reservoirs is plagued by high rates of evaporation, mandatory spills, reservoir silting, excessive environmental fish releases, inadequately sized pipes and pumps and aging infrastructure badly in need of repair. Our entire State Water system is wholly funded by its users. 

The alternative water supply strategy, envisioned by the current MWD Board, is to develop highly-reliable, drought-proof, environmentally-friendly water sources locally. The goal is to achieve a supply portfolio in which 80% of consumed water comes from locally-controlled sources that are independent of rainfall – a desalination water purchase agreement with the City of Santa Barbara, a possible agreement with the Montecito Sanitary District for future recycling or, if unable to reach agreement with Montecito Sanitary, alternative arrangements with the Summerland Sanitary District, or the Carpinteria Advanced Purification Project, or the City of Santa Barbara. 

Initial MWD Water Banking Efforts

MWD has negotiated an agreement for underground water banking with the Semitropic Water Storage District in Kern County. After a DWR administrative (not actual) spill where Montecito lost a full year’s supply of surface water stored in the San Luis reservoir, the MWD Board negotiated a deal for underground water storage. The Semitropic Water Storage District covers an area of more than 220,000 acres. Montecito’s excess State Water in wet years is stored underground in a water bank for use by Montecito in dry years. Semitropic currently banks 700,000 AF of water in a groundwater storage bank with a capacity of 1.65 million AF.The Montecito Water District envisions storing a minimum of 1,500 AF underground for extended drought protection.

Montecito Sanitary District (MSD)

Since 1947, the mission of MSD has been narrowly defined as “the collection, treatment and disposal of wastewater in the most cost-effective way possible.” The Montecito wastewater collection system includes approximately 61 miles of VCP gravity pipeline of which approximately 26 miles have been rehabilitated, 12 miles of PVC gravity pipeline, 2.2 miles of sewer force mains, and 5 pump stations. The majority of the facilities were installed between 1961 and 1969.

Wastewater is piped to the District’s Wastewater Treatment Plant for processing. The Treatment Plant, which has a capacity to treat 1.5 million gallons per day, provides full secondary treatment. In 2016, a dry year, the amount of wastewater that was treated at the Montecito Sanitary plant was approximately 650,000 gallons per day (730 AFY). 

Management and Governance of MSD

MSD is governed by a five-member Board of Directors which approves the annual operating and capital budgets and authorizes expenditures of the District’s funds. The District employs a General Manager as the chief executive who reports directly to the Board of Directors; a District Administrator, an Operations Manager, an Engineering Manager, and a Laboratory/Pretreatment Manager. The District currently has 16 full-time employees. MSD has consistently done an excellent job of doing the same thing, on-time and on-budget, year after year.

Need for Strategic Planning Committee

Relationships between MSD and MWD have been severely strained over several decades, with blame enough on both sides. Following the 2018 elections both MWD and MSD have attempted to at least talk together. The highlight has been a joint meeting of the MSD District Operations Committee and the MWD Strategic Planning Committee on February 25, 2019. While encouraging as a first step, the discussion was too focused on “we and they” instead of “What is best for us?”—the community and its ratepayers.

At minimum, both districts need to form workable “Strategic Planning Committees” to assess future opportunities, not current operations. The following strategic issues need to be addressed by a new MSD Strategic Planning Committee, working collaboratively with MWD Strategic Planning and the community.

Increased Collaboration. What is the best way to acknowledge and build shared trust and shared ideas, currently missing between the Districts? What areas of cooperation need to be nurtured between a MSD Strategic Planning Committee and the MWD Strategic Planning Committees?

Montecito’s Environmental Commitment to Recycle and Reuse Its Wastewater. What is the best pathway for both districts to assure the community that no treated wastewater will be discharged into the ocean by 2025?

Optimum Wastewater Treatment Plant. How many and what size wastewater treatment plants are optimal to achieve least-cost treatment for recycled wastewater? Could one or two South Coast Sanitary Districts deliver more efficient treatment at a lesser cost? Should MSD and MWD combine with SSD (Summerland Sanitary District), or partner with CSD (Carpinteria Sanitary District) for more efficient reuse, or for indirect injection into a larger groundwater basin?

Stormwater Recapture & Reuse Opportunities. What opportunities exist for the capture of stormwater? What are other communities doing? Is flood control coordination with the County a future opportunity for efficient water management?

State and Federal Grant Opportunities. Grants for recycling projects, especially for joint districts, are available. Other communities are way ahead of Montecito in securing cooperative grants and/or loans at low interest rates.

Campus Planning. Is there a Sanitary Campus Master Plan that maximizes MSD’s site potential? Is it possible that a future desalination-wastewater treatment capability on the MSD site might be needed?

Extension of Montecito Sewer System. Should MSD extend sewer service to homes above East Valley Road to get them off septic tanks? When? At what cost? What benefits? In the 1960s, Montecito lost all the taxpaying capacity on Coast Village Road when the Sanitary District was unable to serve CVR businesses. 

At minimum, MSD needs a long-range, future-focused Strategic Planning Committee consisting of Tom Bollay, its president, and Woody Barrett, a newly-elected geologist with the trust and respect of both the MWD Board and his own MSD Board. 

A healthy start has been made with the joint meeting between districts. Simply renaming the existing MSD Operations and Maintenance Committee to the “Strategic Planning Committee” would be a step backwards. If Tom Bollay, as the new MSD Board president, could convince his own Board (and the Water Board) that he truly wants to construct bridges of understanding between districts, and to get rid of the “we and they” positions of the last decade he should embrace a separate Strategic Planning Committee that would do the needed legwork but would need full Board approval. Acorns planted today to plan an efficient and coordinated dual future, will grow into oak trees of understanding and mutual cooperation.

Both Districts need to at least discuss the longer-term advantages and disadvantages of a single Montecito Community Service District Board, initially encompassing both Boards. The discussion of what is best for Montecito needs to be widened to include potential working arrangements with the Summerland Sanitary Board, Montecito Flood Control, Carpinteria Valley Water and Carpinteria Sanitary with their Carpinteria Advanced Purification Project (CAPP). 

Ratepayers seem to favor recycling and putting an end to the current discharge of treated wastewater. They expect both districts to set aside past differences. The one thing they cannot tolerate is an inability for two Districts, who should be joined at the hip, to work in separate silos. The current water world punishes those who cannot work together in the delivery of reliable, safe water at the least cost to residents.


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