Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

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Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin
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As many as 1,500 private wells may be pumping water from Montecito's ground water basin, geologists say, while the Montecito Water District has only 12 active wells (Photo: Melinda Burns)


By Melinda Burns

The ground water basins on most of the urban South Coast are drought buffers of last resort, to be conserved for pumping in emergencies.

But in Montecito, as many as 1,500 private well owners may have “straws” in the same small basin as the Montecito Water District with its 12 public wells, a team of consultants told the district board this month.

The private wells, together with the shallow configuration of the basin, will make it hard for the district to treat wastewater to drinking water standards and inject it into the ground, Tim Thompson, a hydrogeologist with GSI Water Solutions, a Santa Barbara company, told the board.

“It’s not the story I was hoping to tell here,” he said.

The seven-year drought has ended, but it has left the Montecito Water District thirsting for supplies that don’t rely on rain and reservoirs. Among other initiatives, the district board is poised to raise rates to purchase a $4 million yearly supply of Santa Barbara water for the next 50 years. The district serves 11,000 residents; the city would produce the extra supply at its desalination plant.

In pursuing recycled wastewater, the board commissioned the $125,000 GSI study of Montecito’s ground water basin, brushing aside a 2015 geological report that found the basin had “limited recharge potential.” A state grant is expected to help defray half the cost of the GSI report, district officials said. It will be released later this year.

Floyd Wicks, the water board president, has promoted the injection of highly treated wastewater into the ground – called “indirect potable reuse” – as a way of employing a recycled supply year-round, including during the wet months. The cost of such a project has been estimated at $31 million.

But the district’s hopes for indirect potable reuse in Montecito seemed to evaporate last week, as Thompson presented a series of three-dimensional digital illustrations to the board, showing how earthquakes have thrust up massive chunks of bedrock into Montecito’s ground water basin.

“All the basins are challenging around here: it’s unfortunate,” Wicks said. But he found a silver lining to the partial privatization of this critical supply.

“The best way to get the most water out is to have many small wells out there: For this community, it seems to work,” Wicks said. “ … We want people with wells to keep using them. We don’t want this community to look like the Mojave Desert.”

Recycled water that is injected into the ground must typically remain there for at least four months, filtering through sand, before it can legally be drawn out for residential use. In Montecito, given the shallow water table and hundreds of private wells, there are very few places where a recycled supply could travel far enough underground unchecked, Thompson said. He referred to one sub-basin as “a real dog.”

Montecito’s underground aquifers are largely composed of ancient debris flow deposits, Thompson said: “They’re really lousy for holding and transmitting water.”

In summary, the district could perhaps inject only 140 acre-feet of recycled water per year into Montecito’s basin, Thompson told the board. That would meet only 3 percent of customer demand, currently at 4,000 acre-feet per year.

By contrast, district studies show that a simpler recycled water project could deliver as much 370 acre-feet of non-potable water per year through “purple pipe” to some of the Montecito’s largest water users – the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Biltmore resort and Birnam Wood and Valley Club golf courses – meeting 9 percent of customer demand. That project is estimated to cost up to $16 million. The Montecito Sanitary District plans to build a $3 million plant next year to provide non-potable recycled water to the cemetery, one of the district’s biggest customers.

Combing through state permit records, the GSI team was able to pinpoint the location of 900 wells that property owners have applied for in Montecito – but some of those may never have been drilled, or they may be inactive, Thompson said. At the same time, he said, it’s possible that many existing wells were never properly recorded or permitted – hence, the “guesstimate” of 1,500 in all.

There was a well drilling boom in Montecito during the drought, as wealthy property owners sought to elude heavy district penalties for overwatering. But no one knows how much water the private wells are pumping out. Of about 70 wells that GSI was able to find flow rates for, only a handful were very productive, Thompson said, including two that were drilled at the Valley Club golf course in recent years.

Under state law, the district has five years to develop a ground water sustainability plan for Montecito’s basin. In years of normal rain, only about 5 percent of the district’s water supply comes from district wells. Most of the district’s supply for the next three years is expected to come from Lake Cachuma and Jameson Lake.


Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

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Channelfog Nov 01, 2019 01:44 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

A decade ago, I supervised the drilling of 6 wells in Montecito (all w/ county permits) and they all came in @ a meager 2-4 gallons per minute, which is dismal by well standards. Add to that high mineral content, including nasty fluoride. This water deposits so many minerals that a decade or two can destroy soil, killing plants. Hasta la vista garden.

a-1576041726 Nov 01, 2019 10:33 AM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

That a drought is measured by the most recent rainfall events is disingenuous. Calling an end to the drought because of one wet season is like not watering your lawn until it's dead, then watering it once, then saying your lawn is fine. Just go outside and you'll see it's October and California is on fire. What's not burning is extremely dry. One wet year does not qualify as the end of drought, it's just the most recent measurement. If a wet season does not repeat this year, we'll be right back at year 8 in terms of how dry and brittle and flammable and dead all the vegetation is.

PitMix Nov 01, 2019 04:21 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Droughts are not measured by vegetation condition, although vegetation suffers in a drought. Really you are looking at water supply for this- How many years of supply is in Lake Cachuma and how low are our local groundwater levels compared to historical levels? Cachuma is currently at 141360 ac-ft and that should keep us going for another 4 years at least. If GW is also in decent shape, and with our desal plant, we are in pretty good shape.

RHS Nov 01, 2019 09:08 AM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Another example of official nonsense. A coverup supported by the in crowd to justify the existing theft of groundwater by those with resources. The aquifer is the right of the community. The people who have drilled there almost universally did not obtain a permit to do so, do not meter their use, do not pay the rest of the community for the loss of this resource. It is the ultimate statement of "might makes right." As stated before: these users should be required to disclose their wells, required to meter their consumption, and, required to compensate their neighbors for this taking. In addition the denial that recycled water is an option should be challenged further. One choice is to truck the recycled water to basins (such as Goleta) which can handle it with credit to MWD for that. A second choice is to process the recycled water to drinkable standards and then use it directly which is what is happening safely around the world. A third choice is to pump it back into the Montecito aquifer where it can be extracted for non-potable (landscape) uses. Almost all of this folderol is to cover the scheme to get MWD to purchase very expensive desalinated water surplus being produced by the white elephant SB desalination plant in an effort to justify its existence.

PitMix Nov 01, 2019 04:24 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

RHS, the GW report said it would be difficult to get the 6 mo residence time for any inject water to meet drinking water requirements. So the Montecito basin cannot be used for this purpose. Wherever your injection point is, the water has to stay in storage for 6 mos before it can be extracted for drinking. With so many straws in the basin, this is not possible. Currently the GW is used for drinking and so they could not do something that could potential make the water non-potable.

RHS Nov 01, 2019 02:46 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Pitmix: The city is proposing (committed) to build water lines to Montecito at city of SB expense to deliver desalinated water to that location. These pipelines can run two ways and deliver MWD water back to the city treatment site and then back to the storage facility and from there easily to the Goleta water aquifer. And, we do mix "non-potable" water in the aquifer in Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange County and around the world as well. It is permitted. What we have to do is be sure that water brought up from that source is treated/tested for safety. This is necessary in any event as industry/farming/petrochemical production have so endangered our water that we cannot trust Mother Nature alone anyway.

PitMix Nov 01, 2019 12:39 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Your solutions would be difficult to achieve. Pipelines are expensive to build for small communities. Building a toilet to tap treatment plant would be $100-200 million given how much SB's desal plant cost, right? Can't mix non-potable and potable water in the aquifer- no one would allow that. The fact is, if Montecito wants access to more water, it is going to be very expensive. But by 2042 the groundwater basin will be fully monitored due to the ongoing GW sustainability plan, so that will solve some problems.

Flicka Oct 31, 2019 07:00 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Until they were stopped Carpinteria ranchers were selling our well water by the truck loads to Montecito home owners. Talk about greed, it's not just in Montecito.

yacht rocked Nov 02, 2019 04:53 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Yup. The question is, will Carp Valley Water District fall in love with the money that Montecito will offer to put a pipe up Via Real and N Jameson? Or will Montecito pull a William Mulholland and secretly buy up Carp property, install water wells, and then pipe the water over Ortega Hill? "There it is, take it." - Mulholland. Jake’s Partner: (Angry): “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”

a-1576041726 Oct 31, 2019 06:46 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

"... as many as 1,500 private well owners may have “straws” in the same small basin". So what? This problem is self-limiting. If these private well owners deplete their aquifers, they will have to find another water supply- and it will be expensive.

a-1576041726 Oct 31, 2019 05:35 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Montecito has always had a lousy groundwater basin. It’s nothing like Goleta or Carp. There are only 4000 customers, and private wells are not sucking it dry. The only people who are upset about private wells are the Birnum Boys and Hazard’s “Slate” Montecito is fine, they will always be fine. They can conserve and supplement their water in dry years. There is no crisis of water supply in Montecito.

yacht rocked Oct 31, 2019 03:56 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

And yet, just a tiara's toss away, lies the virgin Carp groundwater basin and Carp Valley Water District. Will CVWD fall under the spell of our Cito Romeo? "My bounty is as boundless as the sea...."

Flicka Oct 31, 2019 03:21 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

They just had to keep the beautiful big lawns and gardens looking like something from a gardening magazine. Drill unpermitted wells and to heck with household water shortages in the future. During the extreme drought of the late 1940s the Miramar Hotel was stealing our water at night to wash their guests' cars. Really important stuff!

Yeti Oct 31, 2019 03:11 PM
Montecito’s “Lousy” Ground Water Basin

Greedy, greedy, greedy residents. Burning through their own natural resources like a locust would. All it takes is more money to pipe in water from further away....

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