An Unknown Roadmap: Breaking Down Montecito’s Recycling Plan Options

By Bob Hazard   |   April 29, 2021

Last Thursday, the Montecito Water District and Montecito Sanitary District held a joint strategic planning meeting to discuss options for a joint effort to recycle most of the 500,000 gallons a day of treated Montecito wastewater, now being dumped into 35 feet of ocean water, 1,500 feet off Butterfly Beach in Montecito, a practice whose time has gone. 

Strategic planning participants included Sanitary Board President Dorinne Lee Johnson, Vice President Woody Barrett, and interim General Manager Tony Wong. Water Board participants included Vice President Ken Coates, Director Brian Goebel, and General Manager Nick Turner. Decisions recommended by the joint strategic planning committee members need the endorsement of their respective full boards before becoming official policy. 

Past Studies for Recycling

The first hour of the meeting was devoted to a review of past recycling studies performed by Woodard & Curran in 2018, and a more detailed study released in December 2019 identifying some 30 opportunities for recycling.

The second half of the meeting dealt with weighing options to pursue. Previous studies have narrowed the choices down to three broad categories, with scores of sub-issues that affect each choice. The three major options are:

1. “Purple pipe” system to initially serve the Montecito Cemetery with non-potable water and future expansion to other large users such as the Valley Club and Birnam Wood Golf Club.

Purple pipe systems have been championed by former sanitary directors and the former sanitary general manager. Recycling equipment has been purchased by the Sanitary District and water would be treated to a lower standard than potable water. Initially, purple pipe water would be piped and pumped to the Santa Barbara Cemetery for irrigation. Later, purple pipe water could be piped and pumped as non-potable irrigation water up the hill to Birnam Wood Golf Course and Valley Club. 

There are some problem areas with purple pipe, as strategic planning directors from both water and sanitary poured some cold water on the solution. A new analysis shows that purple pipe water is more expensive than potable water. Some water agencies subsidize purple pipe water by increasing usage charges on existing customers.

Recent data indicates that the cemetery could afford and use about one-third of its projected 80 AFY of its wastewater for landscaping, but cost will be an issue. Projections indicate that purple pipe water would cost more than the annual $100,000 the Cemetery now spends on potable water for irrigation. There are concerns that that non-potable grade water may bleach Cemetery tombstones with lime. 

In the past planners have assumed that non-potable purple pipe water would be sold to large users in the Upper Village, such as Birnam Wood Golf Club or the Valley Club. 

Nick Turner notes: “It is unlikely these Golf Clubs will pay the same or more for recycled water.” 

Valley Club has its own wells and doesn’t need recycled water. Birnam Wood shares well ownership with the water district for several wells on its own property and pays a contracted lower rate to use its own well water.

2. Indirect potable reuse (IPR) as the preferred solution means that IPR systems treat wastewater to a potable (drinking water) standard using advanced treatment, including microfiltration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light, and advanced oxidation. This high-quality recycled wastewater is then injected into a reliable groundwater basin for at least two months before mixing it with other potable water for use as drinking water. 

Potable IPR wastewater can be mixed with existing groundwater to prevent saltwater intrusion of a basin. During periods of decreased winter demand, it can be injected into suitable groundwater basins as “banked water” and withdrawn during summer periods of high demand, if needed. Montecito’s aquifers are arguably inadequate for wastewater injection, but nearby Carpinteria, Toro Canyon, Slippery Rock, or Goleta with better storage basins could be ideal partners for this purpose.

There is a case study in IPR recycling from Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, and Arroyo Grande. Pismo Beach has a population of 8,180 compared to Montecito’s 8,245.  Grover Beach has a population of 15,535 compared to Carpinteria’s 13,505. Arroyo Grande has a population of 18,033 compared to Summerland’s 1,505.   

These communities in San Luis Obispo County, unlike our own, share a common belief in the need for an added sustainable, drought-proof source of potable water that is not dependent on rainfall. Therefore, they have joined hands to work together to ensure that reliable water supplies will be available for future extended droughts on a regional basis.

The project is called Central Coast Blue, a regional recycled water project that will include construction of an Advanced Treatment Facility to treat wastewater from both the city of Pismo Beach Wastewater Treatment Plant and the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s wastewater treatment plant to produce purified water that is purer than most bottled waters in San Luis Obispo County. Currently the water from both treatment plants is being treated to a tertiary standard and discharged into the ocean. The advanced treatment wastewater will be injected into the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin (SMGB) to supplement the natural groundwater supply and prevent seawater intrusion into that basin.  

The specific project goals are: 1. Achieve a 30% increase in community groundwater supplies; 2. Successfully enable five agencies to manage water collaboratively; 3. Create a sustainable local drought-proof water supply; 4. Reduce current dependence on imported water from the State Water System or purchased from other Districts; and 5. Achieve a 77% reduction in ocean discharge.

Significant public funding opportunities are now available for indirect potable reuse projects in California thanks, in part, to the successful passage of the 2014 Proposition 1 Water Bond. According to Heal the Ocean, IPR projects are cost-effective and affordable compared to alternative water supplies such as imported water from the State Water Project, or ocean desalination. Priority funding is available to regional proposals that affect more than one district or break new ground as a model for other districts.

In addition, President Joe Biden has unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $56 billion specifically tagged for rebuilding the nation’s water and wastewater systems. The drinking water and wastewater component could be finalized and poised to pass by this summer. As always, priority funding will go those communities which have shovel-ready projects, designed and costed to at least a 30% level. Will Montecito and its neighboring communities be ready?

3. Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) is the process of treating wastewater to an even higher standard than IPR water without the need to use an environmental buffer such as groundwater basin injection. In January 2018, California State Assembly Bill 574 (AB 574) required the State Water Resources Control Board to develop DPR regulations by the end of 2023. Approval will allow DPR water to be blended with other safe sources, such as highly treated wastewater mixed with desalinated ocean water for potable use or pumped directly into Lake Cachuma or other surface reservoirs.

According to the National Institute of Health, a sound technical basis exists for developing water recycling programs incorporating IPR and/or DPR that are protective of public health. By building on key elements of the existing framework of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the water industry can move forward to incorporate properly treated recycled water as a source of raw drinking water supply.

Last week, Tom Fayram, the county’s Water Agency Director, warned Montecito residents that Santa Barbara County is experiencing its lowest ever 10-year average for rainfall. To make matters worse, the California Department of Water Resources, the principal supplier of potable water to South Coast Water Districts, announced that deliveries of state water will be cut to just 5% of promised water for 2021.

Montecito Water District has a state water allocation of 3,300 acre-feet-year (AFY) in return for paying more than $5 million per year in fixed expenses for its share of the state water conveyance costs. When the annual state water allocation is cut to 5% (from 3,300 AFY to 165 AFY) while the same $5 million in fixed costs remains in place, the cost of state water jumps from a reasonable $1,515 per acre foot (AF) to an astronomic and unaffordable $30,303 per AF.

Montecito and Summerland use some 3,600 AFY of potable water, so when the state water deliveries are cut by more than 3,000 AFY, our community suffers. 

In addition, 10 years of continued drought puts an enormous strain on Montecito’s already inadequate aquifers, putting local well users at risk of dry wells. Thankfully, the Montecito Water Board signed a Water Sales Agreement with the city of Santa Barbara for 1,430 AFY of potable water beginning in January 2022. 

The Carpinteria Connection

The time is now for Montecito Water, Montecito Sanitary, Summerland Sanitary, and Carpinteria Sanitary to explore joining forces to consider the construction of an advanced treatment wastewater facility which could turn wastewater currently being dumped into the Pacific Ocean into potable water and banked underground in Carpinteria. Withdrawals from a Carpinteria water bank do not have to be physical; exchange agreements can be negotiated between districts.

Working Together

For those who fear working together, look no further than the successful merger of the Montecito Water District and the Summerland Water District in 1995. The Montecito community has been trying for three decades to convince Montecito Sanitary and Montecito Water to work together rather than in separate silos. 

South Coast water districts have already been working together for years at the Cater Water Treatment Plant, treating reservoir water for the city of Santa Barbara, the Montecito Water District, and the Carpinteria Water District. 

Recommendations from the Strategic Planning Group

Recommendations from the Joint Strategic Planning Committee to be discussed with both individual boards as an agenda item include the following questions:

1. Should both boards scrap the purple pipe non-potable reuse (NPR) solution?  Why continue to spend time and money on purple pipe if no customers want to buy? Should both boards agree to focus their resource time and dollars on a potable reuse solution? Should both boards halt the $350,000 consultant study by Montecito Sanitary and the $15 million in sanitary equipment for the Cemetery? 

2. Should both boards take a more intense look at the IPR project with Carpinteria to recycle as much as possible of the 550,000 gallons per day of wastewater now being discharged into the ocean? Is the best solution to treat wastewater locally and pipe it to Carpinteria for groundwater injection, or send untreated affluent to Carpinteria to be treated in its treatment plant and injected into their water basin as “banked water?” Should both boards consider a similar outreach to the city of Santa Barbara? 

3. Is it time for both boards to move past the concept stage and engage the community in an intelligent discussion before initiating a 30% design-and-build study to apply for state and federal funding?

4. How would each district pay their fair share of study costs, equipment costs, operating costs, maintenance costs?

5. How will Indirect and Direct Potable Reuse be viewed by the community?

In Conclusion

Credit Leonardo da Vinci with this advice to Montecito’s Water and Sanitary districts: “Water is the driving force of all nature.” Famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart, added this admonition: “Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.”


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