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El Estero No. 5
updated: Apr 10, 2010, 9:30 AM

By Billy Goodnick
El Estero

El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant, located at 520 East Yanonali, is surrounded by lush landscaping.

What possessed Chanel and all the other tres continental Parisienne companies to think that splashing water from the potty behind your ears will get you laid? "Eau de toilette" translates to toilet water, plain and simple, but if you say it in French, maybe it sounds romantic.

But I'm not concerned with the $800 per ounce kind they sell at Neiman-Marcus. This week, I'm writing about wastewater, wee-wee, piddle, poopie or whatever euphemism soothes your sensibilities.

No, not waste water in the raw state - that's icky. The official term for today's topic is recycled water. It's used around town to irrigate parks, schools, golf courses and homeowner association landscaping.

Recycled irrigation water is the ultimate in sustainable landscaping: Every gallon used for irrigation means one gallon of drinkable water saved for a higher use. In Santa Barbara that's about 700,000 gallons per day - more than a drop in the bucket.

The pool at the entryway features colorful water lilies and bullrushes.

My First Lap In The Waste Water Pool

I clearly remember when the El Estero Treatment Plant went online in 1979. I was a dirt-bag gardener, employed by the first crew to care for the newly installed landscape. The planting was less than stellar - mostly African daisy ground cover, a few eucalyptus trees and a mass of boring green shrubs. About as exciting as watching synchronized wading.

But not anymore! On a recent walk around the facility at 520 East Yanonali, spring was speeding along at full throttle. Blooms were bursting from bougainvillea, angel's trumpet, African daisy, kangaroo paws, lavender and a few plants I didn't recognize.

Oh So Pretty

"Why," you might ask, "would a facility dedicated to cleaning up our human litter box go to such lengths to adorn their grounds with a plant collection rivaling Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden?"

The answer is twofold:

1. Science! For some reason, there is very little research regarding which plants will succeed on recycled water.

A South African coral tree (Erythrina species) has a spectacular scarlet bloom and an other-worldly form.

The chemical make-up tends to be higher in salts than a lot of plants can tolerate.

The folks at Water Resources needed answers. So they hired Grant Castleberg (the same landscape architect who designed Alice KPMG) to create a recycled-water-tolerant landscape master. Gradually, through actual field-testing, a very practical list of successful plants is coming together. You can see the list at the Public Works website.

2. Overcoming resistance: Recycled water has had a bad rap among landscape designers. When Chase Palm Park expanded, the Parks and Recreation Department (me included) fought tooth and nail to avoid using recycled water. Without solid info about the potential harm, the risk of planting 10 acres of new parkland - and not knowing how it would respond - was terrifying.

Having a nearby field lab is good news for local designers whose projects are required to make use of the supply. The new condos at the northwest corner of East Yanonali and Garden are

In the breezeway between the buildings, a collection of ferns and palms create a tropical feeling.

a great example of beautiful landscaping that's tapping into the supply with no ill effects.

Recycled water has even been used for the native riparian plants at the recently planted Arroyo Burro estuary restoration with no noticeable ill effects.

Surprise, Surprise!

As you can see from the pictures in this post, the diversity of the plant palette is robust. I was surprised to see that plants I thought of as wussie aren't just growing - they're kicking some serious butt.

If you want to see the demonstration garden up close and personal, El Estero is open to the public on weekdays, but you need to check in at the main office and pick up a visitor's pass.

One word of advice: At certain times there is a subtle - shall we say organic? - aroma dancing on the air.

Bulbous oat grass (Arrhenatherum elatius bulbosum 'Variegatum') and coral bells (Heuchera species) create a delicate visual texture.

You might want to splash on a little Dolce & Gabbana or Hai Karate before you visit.


City of Santa Barbara Public Works Department: 805.564.5460 (link)

Off Topic

If you're thinking of making any changes to your landscaping and need a design tune-up to get you started, consider signing up for my "Through The Green Gate" class, offered by SBCC's Continuing Education division. The six-week class starts Wednesday, April 14 at 6 PM and meets six times, followed by a half-day garden tour. Register on-line


Can't help myself - I wonder if this is a hands-on exhibit for school kids. Ewwww!


Nothing exotic here, but good ole bougainvillea and Agave attenuata can't miss in a Mediterranean palette.


My favorite vignette is Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas ‘Otto Quast') combined with the deep burgundy leaves of Caribbean copper tree (Euphorbia cotinifolia).


Angel's trumpet (Brugmansia species) was doing surprisingly well in an east-facing planter.


Yellow spurge (Euphorbia characias ‘Bruce's Dwarf') and aloe are backed by kangaroo paws for a strong vertical burst.

Comments in order of when they were received | (reverse order)

 TROLLEY TOM agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-11 08:50 AM

Every gallon used for irrigation means one gallon of drinkable water saved for a higher use

...Actually, it's not a one-for-one off set. Recycled water in Santa Barbara would be too salty to use due to the number of residents running salt into the system by using eco-unfriendly water softeners. The City has to add fresh drinking water to the water processed from the sewer treatment...I think it's about 30%


 BECKY agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-11 12:20 PM

It's *great* that they're testing which plants thrive on recycled water. Didn't know that; thanks for the reference. My ongoing concern -- recycled water and vegetable gardening. It would be great to convert most outside watering to recycled, but I suspect the heavy metal and chemical content of my veges and fruits would be too heavy to be healthy then. Pondering...


 COMMENT 68566 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-11 03:06 PM

I was just reading an article in my agriculture journal about how salt-build up and how it will destroy the fertility of an agriculture field. This one farmer with help of a soil scientist is trying to separate out the salts before the water is recirculated. Thus, my questions with landscapes if SB's reclaimed water is going to do more harm than good in the long-term--especially with prolonged dry spells where is not enough rainfall to flush out the salts.


 COMMENT 68572 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-11 04:18 PM

What kind of water softener is best for the enviro anyway? Or is it best to live with hard water?


 COMMENT 68670P agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-12 08:16 AM

Use potassium chloride rather than sodium chloride in your softener. Better for the environment (plants like the potassium) and better for you (especially if you are on a low-salt diet). It's a bit more expensive, but really...sodium chloride should be banned. With a softener, you will use much less detergent to wash dishes and clothes too, and will not have to use nasty chemicals to get calcium build-off off bathroom fixtures, etc.


 COMMENT 69854 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-16 12:57 PM

sodium chloride should be banned if it decreases the rate of re use that much--craaazzee

good work Billy!! What happened to King Bee--did they get sodium-ized too?


 COMMENT 72607 agree helpful negative off topic

2010-04-29 09:41 AM

68670P: You can use vinegar to remove calcium buildup. There is a non-toxic household remedy for everything!


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