Water Security from the Santa Barbara Channel

By Bob Hazard   |   May 16, 2019

Last week’s editorial identified the five top concerns facing the residents of Montecito as (1) Safety and Security from future fire, flood, and earthquake; (2) Rebuilding Public and Private Infrastructure; (3) Protecting and Preserving the Semi-Rural Character of Montecito; (4) Traffic Gridlock in Montecito; and (5) Water Securityand Water Independence from future drought.

Identifying challenges is the easy part. Finding, funding, and fulfilling creative solutions is the hard part, especially in Santa Barbara County with limited government capital funding and operating resource options. The big problem with big ideas is that they come with big price tags that necessitate either big tax increases, homeowner assessments, service rate increases, bonds, federal and state grants, or public philanthropy to install ring nets to lessen rockslides, restore the Montecito trails, or remove “private” mud.

Innovative ideas have to pass at least four high hurdles in Santa Barbara County: Is the creative idea technically feasible? How much will it cost and who will pay for it? Is the idea acceptable to the environmental community? What will be the political cost to leaders who champion any particular idea?

Over the next few weeks, I hope to explore possible solutions to each of the big five challenges, but today let’s explore “Creative Idea #1”: Freedom from Drought – Water Security and Water Independence for the South Central Coast.

Situation Analysis

South Central Coast residents depend upon an aging and unreliable State Water Project (SWP) to receive 70% of their potable water. Planned, constructed, and operated since 1960 by the Department of Water Resources (DWR), SWP is the largest state-built, user-financed, water project in the United States with more than 700 miles of canals, pipelines, surface reservoirs, 21 dams, spillways, tunnels, and pumps which are used to transfer snowmelt from the High Sierras to the cities and farms of central and southern California. It is also the #1 energy user in the State of California.

The total cost of the SWP system, including construction costs, administration, interest, operating and maintenance costs, are paid by the 29 urban and agricultural water purveyors that receive State water. If big users in Los Angeles and San Diego migrate to less expensive alternatives, water would become more expensive for remaining recipients along the Central Coast.

SWP, which was designed to serve 25 million residents, is now being asked to provide water to California’s 40 million residents. As a result, SWP water has been overpromised and underdelivered. Water deliveries to the Central Coast have averaged 36% of promised allocations since the completion of the project. DWR promised that the Coastal Branch would assure 97% reliability in water deliveries to Santa Barbara.

 SWP water is becoming much more expensive. Fixed allocation costs keep rising. Participating districts depend on SWP as a plumbing system for the conveyance of purchased water. Pipes and pumps to fill Lake Cachuma are undersized and inadequate. Reservoirs are filling with silt and cannot de dredged. Stored water faces mandatory spills. Fish releases and protection of the San Joaquin kit fox, the Shasta salamander and the red-legged frog, take precedence over delivering more water. 

Individual districts, seeking to reduce their dependency on SWP water, have embraced high-cost desalination efforts in Santa Barbara and contentious and uncoordinated recycling efforts by various water and sanitary districts. The result has been groundwater overdrafts, cutbacks in water usage, increases in water rates, bone-dry reservoirs and challenges to find local storage. More help is needed.

Future Costs of State Water

Look for rising SWP costs. Repairs to the Oroville Dam spillway will cost $1.1 billion – a $455-million hike from initial estimates. The Twin Tunnels proposed by former California Governor Jerry Brown would build a water conveyance system consisting of two tunnels, each 45 feet high and 35 miles long, buried 150 feet beneath the heart of the Delta to divert Sacramento River water around the Bay/Delta estuary for distribution to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and Southern California cities and suburbs. The cost, estimated at $20 billion for construction only and up to $69 billion for the total project cost, threatens to bankrupt DWR and its 29 water customers. The project would not produce one drop of new water. 

In the 1990s, DWR oversaw the construction of the Coastal Branch of the California Aqueduct designed to improve the water security of Santa Barbara and surrounding environs at an estimated cost of $270 million. Construction costs alone were $595 million; expenditures for our Coastal Branch are anticipated to reach $1.76 billion by 2035.

Thinking Outside-the-Box: A New Solution

Precipitation does not fall where and when we need water. Shipping water from Northern California to Southern California is an antiquated solution. Montecito enjoys the world’s biggest reservoir in the world, the Pacific Ocean, right on our front doorstep. It is larger than all the world’s land masses combined. The Pacific Ocean was built by nature at no cost to ratepayers. Conversely, any new reservoir built today in California today could cost a billion dollars, at minimum.

The Pacific Ocean covers 60 million square miles (30% of the Earth’s surface) with an average depth of 1,300 feet and contains almost 2 trillion acre-feet (1,973,000,000,000 AF) of water. It is constantly being replenished. Unlike oil or natural gas, water is constantly recycled through evaporation, rainfall, fog, rivers, groundwater storage, and extraction. 

Turning Oil into Water: Off-Shore Water Factories

All fossil fuel production in the Santa Barbara Channel has long been contentious. Platform Holly, just two miles off Haskell’s Beach, joins six other oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel to be permanently shut down and removed. The decommissioning cost to oil companies is estimated at $500 million, or more, per platform.

Four options are being considered: (1) Remove the platforms and their sub-structures completely at an enormous cost per platform; (2) Convert the platforms to marine biology labs to nurture 45 species of fish and hundreds of thousands of endangered invertebrates; (3) Reconfigure the platforms for alternative energy production (wind, wave or solar); or (4) Create artificial reefs for the marine life by retaining that portion of the platform that is below the ocean’s surface.

Platform Holly’s drilling wells are to be capped at an initial cost of $350 million, with the work to be completed no earlier than 2021. Before shutting down operations in 2015, Holly’s 30 wells on its one-acre platform, descended more than 200 feet before piercing the ocean’s floor. They then spidered-out nearly 10,000 feet in all directions, to extract a mixture of both water and natural gas.

Creating an Off-Shore Water Factory

Is it possible for south county leadership – Supervisors Das Williams, Gregg Hart, Joan Hartman, Peter Adam,and Steve Lavagnino (Chair); State Senator Hannah- Beth Jackson; State Assemblymember Monique Limon and Congressman Salud Carbajal – all openly pro-environment and anti-oil and natural gas drilling – to meet with senior Chevron and Exxon-Mobil oil and natural gas officials who own drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel. Include leaders from the environmental community and notable private business leaders who are world-class engineers and infrastructure builders with ties to our community such as Steve Bechtel (Bechtel Corporation), Ken Stinson (Kiewit Corp), and Jim Dehlsen (Aquantis). 

Water Factory Funding

Water Factory funding could be provided by drilling companies, already facing billions of dollars in decommissioning costs. Retain the platforms by converting them into giant water factories and Marine Biology Labs that use existing drills to extract sub-ocean floor water. Pass the extracted water through underseas reverse osmosis (RO) membranes to remove salt and other impurities and deliver desalinated water through existing pipelines to urban users along the California Coast. There are no adverse environmental effects from a water spill.Eliminate our current dependency on the State Water System. In a gesture of nobility, coastal cities could cede or sell all their State Water (and its associated costs) to inland cities and inland agricultural interests who need it more.

To attract oil and gas company interest, government might promise a slowdown in the shutdown of natural gas well production, reducing decommissioning costs, offering fast-track permitting for Water Factories, promoting low-cost energy (wind, wave, solar, or natural gas), freedom from environmental lawsuits, state and county government support and Coastal Commission approval for approved plans to turn oil into water. The challenge would be to produce and deliver desalinated water to south coast users for free, or at a maximum cost of $2,000 per acre-foot (which is still twice the cost of desalinated water in Israel).

Water Factories could be owned by oil companies, or government, or public/private partnerships, or private contractors such as Poseidon/IDE, which might be willing to sell desalinated water at a fixed contracted low-price per acre foot.

Could community environmentalists accept the formation of Water Factories on former oil platforms? Could oil companies accept the capital and operating costs of Water Factories in lieu of platform decommissioning costs, or in return for extended leases to extract natural gas?

Are off-shore Water Factories an idea that excites courageous political leaders to initiate exploratory talks between platform owners and/or potential water makers, business leaders and the environmental community to end Central Coast drought worries forever and bring water security to residents at a more affordable cost to ratepayers without one dime of public investment? As Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson has said, “Encouraging dialogue is what we need to move beyond the old way of doing things.” Is this an issue for Das Williams to pursue in order to polish his credentials as an innovative and effective dealmaker? Let me know what you think. Email me at bobhazard@gmail.com.


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