Should the Montecito Water and Sanitary Districts Consolidate?

By Bob Hazard   |   April 19, 2022

Last week, the Independent published an editorial titled, “Merger in Works for Montecito Water? Push to Combine Water and Sewer Districts is Solution Without a Problem, Critics Say.”

The implication in the Independent editorial is that there is no good reason for the Montecito Water and Sanitary districts to challenge the status quo, to study alternative futures, or to make the best possible decisions for customers of both districts. Does the Independent realize that of the 127 members of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, 65 members are now districts or cities with combined water and sanitary responsibilities, including the City of Santa Barbara? 

The Montecito community deserves better than a close-minded refusal to explore options and opportunities. Here are a few “Points to Ponder” for the ratepayers of Montecito Water and Sanitary over the next few months, prior to the release of two board-approved, jointly-funded consultant studies, intended to educate the 10 directors from the current Water and Sanitary District boards with the data they need to make informed decisions. 

What is the future of water and wastewater management in Montecito?

Currently there are separate Water and Sanitary districts serving Montecito, each doing its best to serve the needs of our community. Unfortunately, there are inherent conflicts between the two agencies, some happening in clear view, while others happen below the surface. It is these differing approaches that could block the search for our community’s possible future. There are some who would say that separate districts should remain unchanged, and that looking ahead to explore new ways of doing business will automatically lead to bad consequences. That attitude is very short-sighted.

Why should the boards of Montecito Sanitary and Montecito Water study the possible consolidation of Water and Sanitary districts? 

It is hardly a secret to anyone in Montecito that our community has experienced a decade of drought with more still to come. Dry years are occurring more frequently, while rising temperatures make droughts more intense. Depleted aquifers and insufficient groundwater make future planning of joint water issues a necessity, not an option. Water supply and water demand issues have no respect for man-made water or sanitary district boundaries. 

Wise water management will require setting priorities and exploring opportunities for securing new and reliable water supplies; creating the most efficient delivery systems; recycling wastewater for either Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR), or Direct Potable Reuse (DPR); increased water conservation; environmental protections; stormwater recapture; and improved management of depleted groundwater basins.

The answers to these challenges will require joint financial participation and decisions by both Water and Sanitary experts and decision makers.

Should Water and Sanitary districts pursue fact-based guidance to shape a healthy future?

The Montecito Water District and Montecito Sanitary District have joined together to retain not one but two separate consulting groups to help both districts examine a variety of options and to identify joint plans for the optimum future choices for their respective ratepayers. 

The Raftelis Study, conducted by a company that works with water and wastewater utilities nationwide, will focus on successful governance models, regional alliances, and “best practices” for effective decision-making on matters related to water. 

The companion Carollo Engineering Study will focus on least-cost/high-benefit engineering options to guide the boards of both districts to make informed decisions about the design and cost of future delivery systems. Carollo is an environmental engineering firm, specializing in the planning, design, and construction management of water and wastewater facilities for municipal and public sector clients.

The two studies dovetail like two halves of the same zipper in Montecito’s ongoing search for future water security, which is defined as an adequate supply of reliable water at the least cost to ratepayers. To the critics of these two studies, I would ask, “What is so scary about gathering all of the facts before board decisions are made?”

Why do Montecito and other coastal communities continue to dump their wastewater into the Pacific Ocean

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 the 57 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 five billion gallons of treated wastewater into the ocean every year. The City of Santa Barbara dumps nearly six million gallons per day; Goleta Sanitary dumps some 3.3 million; Carpinteria Sanitary dumps 2.5 million gallons per day; Montecito Sanitary dumps a half million gallons; and tiny Summerland Sanitary dumps 125,000 gallons per day.

Together, these five plants, within 13 miles of each other, dump 12.4 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into the ocean. If we don’t stop, the State will soon mandate that we do so.

Should both Montecito Water and Sanitary work together to jointly use indirect potable reuse technology to end dumping wastewater 1,500 feet off Butterfly Beach? 

 Just as it takes “two to tango,” it will take a cooperative common effort by BOTH the Sanitary and Water districts, to implement advanced treatment of wastewater, using either indirect potable reuse, or direct potable reuse technology. One promising option to be explored and costed by Carollo will be to pipe and pump some 600 acre-feet per year of Montecito untreated wastewater, plus Summerland’s tiny flow, to an advanced wastewater treatment plant in Carpinteria or Santa Barbara, to then be combined with a larger volume treated at a lower cost and a higher standard, before injecting it into a suitable groundwater basin or water bank for final purification. 

With California Governor Gavin Newsom calling for an additional voluntary cut of 15% in Montecito annual water usage, indirect potable reuse of wastewater could add a new 15% source of potable water to Montecito’s supply. 

Why can’t the two districts simply draw up a memorandum of understanding to work together without consolidating? 

From 2003 to 2021, I attended every Water Board meeting save one, plus some 50 Sanitary Board meetings, where I watched multiple well-meaning board members from both Sanitary and Water try their best to resolve a totally dysfunctional relationship. Each district blamed the other for an inability to reach agreement. The Sanitary District is required to treat wastewater, but is not allowed to sell water, while the Water District has sole responsibility for all water sales in the district, and takes in all the revenue. If you can’t solve a problem in 18 years, it may be time to modify the decision-making structure.

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 cost-sustainable solutions to very complex and integrated water security issues.  

Editor’s Note: Bob Hazard, Montecito resident and former CEO of the 3rd largest franchise hotel company in the world, was an associate editor of the Montecito Journal for 18 years (2003-2021) writing weekly opinion pieces on issues of interest at the Fire District, Water District, Sanitary District, and Montecito Association, as well as other local, county, state, federal, and international service providers.


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