Debunking the Simplicity of Transforming Montecito’s Water Woes

By Hillary Hauser   |   April 15, 2021

In Bob Hazard’s guest editorial (MJ 1-8 April 2021) he offers the quote, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there,” as argument for supporting the road he is on personally, to combine water and wastewater districts, connect groundwater basins across the South Coast – extend pipes hither and yon. 

This quote applies to journalism that leads readers around in circles with misstatements and wrong facts. 

Taking Hazard’s points one by one:

“End the Dumping of Treated Wastewater into the Ocean” 

Heal the Ocean has stated over and over to Mr. Hazard and members of the “Water Security Team” that as much as any of us (including Heal the Ocean) would like to have zero discharge into the ocean, it is for now an impossibility. The byproduct of wastewater treatment is brine, and brine contains toxic materials. It is super expensive to clean up, and the toxic salt has to go somewhere. Truck it to Arizona and put it under the mountain, next to nuclear waste? Bury it? Take it to Casmalia? Heal the Ocean researched every technology possible and published our findings in an informal brine report. It’s on the HTO website. Mr. Hazard, please read it, and see what the problems are.

In the meantime, if we really want to bring down the problem of brine waste, we can quit using water softeners. Those bags of “water softener” material you see outside grocery stores are nothing but salt and chlorides. Many communities in California have banned water softeners already.

Local Water Banking

“Regional banking will become the norm despite efforts in Carpinteria and Goleta to go it alone.” Hazard suggests underground banking could provide a five-year supply of community water. He fails to mention the physical cost (and impossibility) of running pipes from one groundwater basin to another, or from a groundwater basin to a communal reservoir. Caltrans will not permit pipelines hither and yon (Heal the Ocean could barely get a permit to run a short pipe down a side road in the Rincon septic-to-sewer project). The pumping up and down inclines is super-high energy (not encouraged with climate change), not to mention maintenance going and coming (and sets up many possibilities for failure). Finally, groundwater management programs are in place to protect and preserve groundwater in this time of climate change, not to collect it all and go on watering golf courses and cemeteries.

Groundwater Sustainability

In this section, Hazard promotes “…properly treated wastewater stored underground in water banks for withdrawal in periods of severe drought,” without mentioning that recycled water cannot be injected into a groundwater basin with inadequate “travel time.” Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR), which is what it’s called, means the wastewater is treated almost to drinking water standards but after injection into a groundwater basin, must remain there for an extended period of time before drawn out for human consumption. The Montecito water basin has been studied more than once and shown to be too small for this purpose. As for getting IPR water from any other basin, there is the piping issue, but most of all, the cost of production of such water borne by ratepayers in a particular district cannot be given away to another district. It’s against the law.

Dysfunctional Districts 

When voters passed the $7 billion (Prop 1) Water Bond of 2014, water and wastewater districts immediately joined forces to line up to get a piece of the $750 million in that bond for recycling projects. Wastewater districts produce the recycled water, but cannot sell it, so the districts must work together, share costs, and so forth. Through Prop 1, South Coast water/wastewater districts were availing themselves of $150,000 planning grants at 50% discount (shared, the cost to each was $37,500), and those planning grants got them in line for actual construction grants.

Goleta Water and Goleta Sanitary districts joined hands and did it successfully; and the Carpinteria Valley Water District and Carpinteria Sanitary districts did it successfully (and are now building their recycled water plant to initiate IPR injection into the Carpinteria groundwater basin). 

When Montecito Sanitary District and Montecito Water District were specifically asked to join hands to apply for such a planning grant, Montecito Sanitary said “yes,” and Montecito Water said “no.” 

“Over my dead body,” a MWD director said. 

The rest of us went forward. Through the Santa Barbara County Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) program, district managers and stakeholders met for a year to produce the South Coast Recycled Water Development Plan, which estimated costs of construction and pipe configurations to potential customers. Montecito Sanitary District attended those meetings, and since Montecito Water District did not, the rest of us did our best to guesstimate for them to produce pipeline maps, potential customers, and estimated costs. (This report is available on Heal the Ocean’s website.)

Hazard is right in saying Hillary Hauser blames the action of past water board members as the primary cause of the dysfunction. I still do. It was a giant opportunity missed. I was there, Montecito Sanitary District was there, I saw it with my own eyes and the truth is the truth.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Consolidation? Form a CSD? Why? To add more unnecessary cost to handling wastewater and water? These are two entirely different functions. We already know the funds cannot be commingled. To form a CSD so that the districts can take on the problems of sidewalks and streetlights, and other such CSD matters? 

There has been the idea floated for getting rid of the MSD treatment plant and running it all to the city, after all the connecting pipe is already there. Heal the Ocean looked at that one, has talked to the City about it, and ended up with what we consider the insurmountable question as to how all the pipes from Montecito residences and businesses are going to get to the city? A collection system is still needed, which is what already exists on the MSD property.  

As for reconstructing the pipeline from Montecito to El Estero, this cost would come at significant expense at a time MWD working on paying the cost of connecting to the city’s desal plant. And then, how do you get the recycled water back to Montecito? Again, the pipeline question.

Where we go from here is to conserve and wait for potable reuse to come to pass (the State has been working on this forever; it’s still not permissible). Those treatment plants (like Orange County) that are closest to potable reuse employ tremendous machinery to clean it up as much as possible, then use surface water for final mixing. 

In the meantime, we can let the districts do the jobs ratepayers pay them to do and stop the fantasy “security team” talk of ideas that are non-permissible and wildly expensive.


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