Can Water and Sanitary Work Together to Shape the Future of Montecito?

By Bob Hazard   |   April 8, 2021

A recent series of letters in the Montecito Journal has questioned the wisdom of the Montecito Water Board and the Montecito Sanitary Board’s studying the issue of consolidation. Jeff Kerns, a respected former Sanitary Director, has raised an important issue. He suggests that the first step is to define the problem you want to solve; only after that, can you identify the appropriate organizational structure to solve the identified problems. I cannot agree with Jeff more. This past week both the Water and Sanitary Boards opened discussion on this important topic.

Whether the Montecito Water District and the Montecito Sanitary District should remain separate districts or consolidate into a single district depends upon the answers to the following questions: (1) What is this community’s common vision for the future of water security and water recycling in Montecito and Summerland? And then, (2) How can our community best accomplish that vision? As the Mad Hatter advised Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

Water Planning Certainties

The world around us is changing at warp speed – extended drought, future water shortages, and depleted aquifers make future planning of joint water issues a necessity, not an option. Potable water supplies, or the lack thereof, have no respect for man-made water or sanitary district boundaries. Wise water management will require setting priorities in the future funding of groundwater basin sustainability, underground water storage banks, surface reservoirs, recycled wastewater, recycled stormwater, additional desalination opportunities, regional and district alliances, water conservation and freedom from reliance on an aging State Water System that has been overpromised and underdelivered, while becoming increasingly more expensive. What are possible areas of common agreement between the two Districts?

End the Dumping of Treated Wastewater into the Ocean

Montecito residents seem to agree that it is environmentally irresponsible and insensitive to continue to dump over 500,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater into the ocean off Butterfly Beach, a practice that has continued for the last 30 years.  Recycling nearly all of the Montecito Sanitary’s annual 600 acre-feet of wastewater could end ocean outflow through the injection of treated wastewater into suitable groundwater basins for final conversion into potable water. This solution could satisfy more than 15% of Montecito Water’s annual water usage. 

According to Heal the Ocean’s James HawkinsInventory of Municipal Wastewater Discharges to California Coastal Waters, “417 billion gallons of treated municipal wastewater were discharged from 57 wastewater treatment plants directly into California coastal waters in the 2015 calendar year.” 

Says Hawkins, “If an aggressive 85% of municipal wastewater effluent from coastal treatment plants were recycled and used to offset or supplement drinking water supplies, 28.61% of urban water use in California’s coastal regions could have been supplied.”

 The five wastewater treatment plants along our local beaches from Goleta to Carpinteria discharge nearly 5 billion gallons of treated wastewater into the ocean every year. The city of Santa Barbara dumps nearly 6 million gallons per day; Goleta Sanitary dumps some 3.3 million; Carpinteria Sanitary dumps 2.5 million gallons; Montecito Sanitary dumps 0.5 million gallons; and tiny Summerland Sanitary dumps 125,000 gallons per day.

 Together, these five plants within 13 miles (or less) of each other dump 12.4 million gallons per day of treated wastewater onto our beaches, an environmental nightmare. If we don’t stop dumping treated wastewater into the ocean, the state will soon mandate that we do so.

Local Water Banking

Future climate change and the threat of sustained drought make it mandatory that we develop a strategy to bank excess water in wet years in local underground water banks on this side of the mountain for use in dry years. Water banked underground is not subject to evaporation, nor fish releases, nor spills nor rainfall. 

Regional banking will become the norm despite efforts in Carpinteria and Goleta to go it alone. Advanced water research and technology, plus legal and political pressure, will accelerate efforts to bank water locally. Potential banking sites for long-term water storage include Slippery Rock in Goleta, Carpinteria, the existing basin beneath the Bradbury Dam at Lake Cachuma, or other possible locations on this side of the mountain. Underground water banking of a five-year supply of community water is an idea whose time is coming. 

End Dependence on State Water System

California receives 75% of its rain and snow in the watersheds north of Sacramento. However, 80% of California’s water demand comes from the southern two-thirds of the state. The State Water System is over-promised and under-delivered to farmers, environmentalists, and urban users. Designed for a maximum of 25 million users in the 1960s and 1970s, the State Water System now attempts to serve 40 million people. It is an aging, unreliable, relic of a once-trusted water system to transport snow melt from the high Sierras to San Diego. To ignore its higher costs and lower reliability is a mistake no responsible Water or Sanitary Board should make. 

Groundwater Sustainability

Dry years are occurring more frequently while rising temperatures make droughts more intense. The Montecito Water District has formed a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to replenish and manage a limited Montecito groundwater system that is hideously vulnerable to depletion during periods of extended drought. 

Should severe depletion of Montecito groundwater become a reality, as many as 1,000 well owners with dry wells in Montecito would suddenly turn to Montecito Water as new users, skyrocketing demand for local water.  

Directors from both water and sanitary recognize that threat and realize that properly treated wastewater stored underground in water banks for withdrawal in periods of severe drought, could offer an additional layer of added water protection. Some water directors feel strongly that well owners with straws inserted into the Montecito aquifers are not paying their fair share of the district’s fixed water costs, and that current water district ratepayers are being asked to pay for the entire cost of replenishing and maintaining those aquifers, and for importing new water if those aquifers run dry.

Dysfunctional Districts

Symbiotic cooperation and trust between the water and sanitary districts is absolutely key to meeting our community’s future water needs. Unfortunately, for the last 10 years, successive boards have tried their best to resolve a totally dysfunctional relationship where each district blames the other for lack of understanding. Last year, water directors supported a slate of candidates for the Sanitary Board under a common banner that the two boards share community concerns and need to work together on planning and funding common issues.  

Long-term supporters of the Sanitary District like Hillary Hauser blame the actions of past water board members as the primary cause of the dysfunction; the truth is that both boards are equally at fault for failure to work together. The Sanitary District is required to treat wastewater but is not allowed to sell water, while the Water District cannot treat wastewater but has sole responsibility for all water sales in the district. It is dangerous to assume that conceptual agreement on recycling alone can ensure cooperation on projects, where implementation and funding require both districts to work together as closely as two halves of a zipper. Interestingly, of the 127 members of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, 65 members are now districts or cities with combined water and sanitary responsibilities.

Planning for the Future

Water Board Director Cori Hayman warned her colleagues last year: “Our constituents fully expect us to continue working on critical initiatives (like recycling). We were elected to do a job, and we must fulfill our obligations. If anything, current conditions show us that we must continue to move swiftly and put resilient plans in place for the district’s future water needs. This community knows that things can change overnight, and we must be prepared.”

Lack of local foresight has caused problems in the past. In 1960, Coast Village Road (CVR) business owners on septic tanks were frustrated by locals who were reluctant to fund a Montecito Sanitary treatment plant. In desperation, CVR residents and businesses agreed to be annexed to the city of Santa Barbara in return for a sewage system. A year after CVR annexation, Montecito Sanitary opted for its own treatment plant. The penalty for this missed opportunity has been that Montecito has lost all planning jurisdiction over Coast Village Road, and lost control over the $2 million in taxes that now flow into city of Santa Barbara coffers. 

More recently, Montecito Water became the only water district in California out of 537 districts to adopt water rationing. The approximately 600 AFY of treated wastewater that Montecito Sanitary dumps into the Pacific Ocean could have supplied more than 15% of Montecito’s drought needs – a perfect example of inadequate planning, too little, too late – a missed opportunity. 

Where Do We Go from Here?

There is an old Chinese proverb that is applicable to today’s water situation: “Do not always follow where the path has been. Go where there is no path and leave a new trail.” 

What is needed now is a community with an open mind; one that demands that both its Water and Sanitary District directors collect and analyze relevant data, define mutual objectives and work together to explore and cost, sustainable solution options. To argue that both districts should close the door on consolidation because consolidation rules are too complicated; or that funding could be diverted from a district pet project, such as building a $6 million office complex for four people; or that legal costs are too high; is madness. 

As Water District Director Ken Coates noted at last week’s Water Board meeting, “We cannot close the door on consolidation. At the last election, voters looked to both boards to work together to address problems on both the Water and Sanitary side.” 

Water Director Floyd Wicks added, “For decades, not years, the two boards haven’t been able to work together. That will not change until we change the structure. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the right thing for our community.”

Sanitary Board President Dorinne Lee Johnson scheduled a Special Sanitary Board meeting to address the issue of consolidation. Water Board President Tobe Plough noted that County Supervisors have indicated a willingness to support consolidation, if the two boards agree among themselves, and that once each board has defined its planning priorities independently, the two boards need to come together to define mutual issues for joint cooperation and plot a pathway forward. •MJ


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