Which Way Water Security?
Anyone carefully watching the progress of MWD’s “Water Supply Agreement” (WSA) with Santa Barbara already knows that it is almost a foregone conclusion that the agency’s board of directors will have already approved this deal by the time you’re reading these words. Yet as historic as today’s vote is, or was, there are still several important questions about Montecito’s complex relationship with water that remain to be fully answered. In this, the sixth article in the Montecito Journal‘s water series, we hope to do just that.
So what exactly is water security? It sounds like a basic question, but it turns out there’s more than one answer. In water jargon, the phrase translates into making sure you have a reliable and preferably local supply of water. The problem is there really isn’t anything fitting that description in our neighborhood, at least not underground. Although certain nearby areas uphill from us, including Slippery Rock Ranch, sit on top of sizable water aquifers, they aren’t currently allowed to sell their water to anyone. So, in practical terms, water security for Montecito means purchasing water from Santa Barbara’s 1980s-era desalination plant.
Although the Funk Zone facility is licensed to provide up to 10,000 acre feet of water per year, it is currently only operating at one-third capacity. By selling desalinated water to Montecito, however, the city can help pay down the plant’s $70 million price tag and perhaps expand its production of desalinated water.
Local environmental activists oppose the deal over concerns about the plant’s impact on ocean wildlife (more on that in a minute). However, the rest of Montecito’s water board: groundwater sustainability director Cori Hayman, finance director Ken Coates, and strategic planning director Brian Goebel, all support the desal deal. So does Carolee Krieger, president of the California Water Impact Network (CWIN), who has been following the debate over Montecito’s water policy for decades and has often clashed with the board’s leadership. “I approve of the deal MWD is trying to craft with the city,” said Krieger. “I think it’s the most reliable source of water for Montecito.”
Why So Expensive?
Longtime critics of MWD’s current board, including former manager Bob Roebuck and former board member Dick Shaikewitz, see the deal as a waste of money – a lot of money. They have a point: Desalinated water is about as expensive as water gets, unless you purchase it on the spot market during a state-wide drought; for Montecito, it is estimated to start out costing $3,194 per acre foot per year, which is enough water to cover an acre of land with one foot of water. California is no longer in an extreme drought, however, so opponents of the deal argue that it would be far wiser for MWD to rely on water from the State Water Project (SWP), which brings water from Lake Oroville in Northern California all the way to Lake Cachuma, our local reservoir.
The argument in favor of the Oroville source is we’ve already paid for this water and assuming that Montecito can continue to conserve water, we don’t really need desal. “MWD has a significant opportunity to reduce the need for supplemental water supplies by increasing water conservation,” Roebuck argued in a recent editorial. “Presently only 15 percent of MWD water is for interior use. The remaining 85 percent is for exterior use, primarily landscaping. This represents a significant opportunity to conserve more water.”
According to MWD, the desal deal will provide 100 percent reliable water that will meet 38 percent of Montecito’s annual water needs. That’s an impressive figure, given that, as previous stories in this series have revealed, SWP water has become notoriously unreliable in recent years. In fact, according to Ray Stokes, executive director of the Central Coast Water Authority (CCWA), which represents more than a dozen water agencies including MWD, the reliability of SWP water is expected to continue going down in future years. “It’s anyone guess with the long-term reliability of SWP water,” Stokes said. “Right now, they say they can provide us with water 60 percent of the time.” However, Stokes added, because of environmental regulations relating to state water’s effect on fish populations and other factors, that percentage is expected to go down in coming years. “There will be downward pressure on state water,” he explained. “So I am telling all my member agencies that we need to plan for a number of 50 percent or lower reliability. Who knows how low that number will go? But for planning purposes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number got as low as 41 or even 40 percent reliable.”
Whither the Windfall?
Although she supports the agency’s desalination deal with Santa Barbara, Krieger still questions why MWD is raising water rates on its customers. “Why is the agency raising water rates when we are about to pay off a significant amount of the money we owe for state water?” asks Krieger. Here’s the reason behind her concern: Ever since 1998, MWD has been paying CCWA for its share of the cost of transporting water south from San Luis Obispo County to Santa Barbara County, pipes, pumps and treatment facilities collectively known as the State Water Project’s “local branch.” According to the MWD’s May 7, 2020 “Water Cost of Service and Rate Study,” the agency has been paying roughly $1.8 million per year for the local branch, but these payments end in 2022. So why isn’t that projected windfall helping to offset the cost of the agency’s proposed desal deal?
The answer has to do with another debt MWD still owes: the cost of constantly upgrading Montecito’s aging water pipes and other infrastructure, much of which was built nearly 100 years ago. Back in the 1990s, MWD acquired a substantial debt by paying for upgrades to its water system. Then, in 2010, it refinanced that debt with $13,360,000 in bonds. So far, MWD has just been making interest payments of $690,462 each year for the past decade, but starting in 2023, the agency estimates that it must pay anywhere between $1,385,000 and $1,990.000 each year until 2035. So much for a budget windfall, right?
Not so fast, according to Turner, who says water customers actually will see a windfall, just not for 17 years. That’s when Santa Barbara will have paid off its low-interest loan to build the plant. “After the capital is paid off in 17 years,” said Turner, “the annual cost of the water supply agreement will drop by half, from $3,194 per acre feet of water to just $1,575. “That’s about half the cost that we are paying now,” added Floyd Wicks, president of the Montecito Water District.
Why Such a Large Surcharge?
If you look closely at your monthly water bill, you’ll notice that service fees and other surcharges account for a hefty portion of your pain. With MWD planning to pay for desalinated water by raising rates by 2.8 percent per year for five years, some residents worry that those surcharges will also increase. Not so, Wicks insists. “The ‘surcharge’ was imposed by the prior board as a means to recover the ‘lost revenue’ from much lower water sales resulting from the board’s imposition of penalties,” he said. To make up for the loss of revenues, a “surcharge” was added to all water sold by the district. “Hence, even those customers who used a small amount of water had to pay the surcharge.” Although Wicks said heavier water users will have to continue pay more for their water, customers who use the least amount of water will no longer be subjected to a surcharge and will actually see a reduction in their monthly water bills.
Debating Desal’s Environmental Cost
Although officials are determined to continue operating the plant as long as possible and even hopefully triple its annual production, local environmental groups can be expected to make that as difficult as possible. Instead of safer (to sea life) subsurface intake and release pipes, the plant’s 1980s-era technology features open-intake water pipes which environmentalists say unnecessarily kill tiny ocean organisms.
“The city has had problem after problem with the intake system,” complained Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. “They tried to fix a 30-year-old plant that was just sitting there for all these years,” she added, referring to the fact that the plant shut down after just three months in 1991 and wasn’t brought back online until three years ago. “They need to replace the weir box on East Beach and move it back inland so it’s not so vulnerable to rising sea levels.” (A weir box is a water flow measuring device.)
Redmond and other activists are pressuring to force the city to apply for a new coastal development permit, arguing that the plant’s original permit only allowed it to be used to supply water during a drought emergency. They also want to force officials to complete a new Environmental Impact Report (EIR) focusing on whether the plant’s technology from 30 years ago is sufficiently advanced. “They need to do an EIR that looks at desal from the perspective of the modern day, as well as the energy impacts, and climate change impacts,” said Redmond. “We also need a more open public process where we look at all this moving forward.”
Recycled Water, Anyone?
Despite all the debate about desal, the final draft of Santa Barbara’s 50-page term sheet outlining the details of its water supply agreement with Montecito explicitly specifies that it is only obligated to sell Montecito a certain amount of water each year for the next 50 years, and makes no particular promise that any much less every single ounce of that water will be created by its desalination plant. The legal loophole might just sound like typical contract blather in case aliens blow up or steal Santa Barbara’s plant (in which case, water will no longer be our biggest problem).
But 50 years is a long time. It’s entirely possible that Santa Barbara will end up providing just part of the water it will owe Montecito from its desal plant, or perhaps none at all. It all depends on science, economics, and political will. While wave-motion energy based desalination still seems like a pie-in-the-sky notion, proposed innovations in water desalination technology such as reverse osmosis nanomembranes which might radically reduce the energy needed to desalinate water are entirely within the realm of reason. Remember, once upon a time, all efforts to make mass amounts of seawater drinkable by humans were considered pie-in-the-sky. So, you know, Science moves us forward and things can change.
Meanwhile, depending on political trends, Santa Barbara might eventually junk the plant and figure out how to recycle wastewater for landscaping. Or, someday even –cringe alert – we might have mass recycling of waste water into potable household water. “I am a big fan of recycled water,” said Redmond, noting that it has been successfully implemented by water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. “It’s also local and drought proof and is water that you will always have no matter what. And you are bettering the environment by dumping less treated sewage into the ground.”
Mass scale wastewater recycling, while still a remote possibility, isn’t something that even desal’s biggest proponent, Wicks, necessarily opposes. In fact, says Wicks, he and fellow board member Tobe Plough had initially tried to urge MWD to build a project that included recycling water back in 2015. “We made a proposal to the MWD to do just that,” he said. “We proposed a combined desal and recycled water project, the whole nine yards.”
According to Wicks, the recycled water idea went nowhere thanks to the competing egos and conflicting agendas that typify local water politics. “The important thing about this deal is that, for the first time, we will finally have a reliable local source of water,” he concluded. “No matter how much of it comes from desalination, it will be there and we will have it when we need it.”