Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

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Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito
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Under a new agreement between Montecito and the City of Santa Barbara, Montecito will pay off nearly half the cost of the city’s $72 million desalination plant on the waterfront in return for a guaranteed yearly supply of the city’s drinking water from any source for the next 50 years. (Photo: City of Santa Barbara)


By Melinda Burns

Signing off on a historic deal with its wealthiest – and thirstiest – neighbor, the Santa Barbara City Council this week voted 6-0 to ship a supply of the city’s drinking water to Montecito every year for the next 50 years, rain or shine.

In return, under a Water Supply Agreement that will be signed by both parties in August, the Montecito Water District has agreed to effectively fund 46 percent, or $33 million, of the city’s $72 million desalination plant through 2072, plus interest and a share of operation and maintenance costs.

“This truly is exemplary of a mutually beneficial agreement,” Mayor Pro Tempore Kristen Sneddon said on Tuesday. “It’s a win-win. It really speaks to our strengthening our resilience, our water quality and our water supply.”

The district’s initial payments to the city will be $4.6 million annually, saving city ratepayers from steep rate hikes, officials said. For Montecito, it buys 1,430 acre-feet of water; that’s 46 percent of current plant capacity and enough to meet nearly 40 percent of Montecito’s customer demand.

Desalination provides the surplus that is available for sale, but under the agreement, the city can supply Montecito with water from any source. The district will raise rates through 2025 to help pay for the project; the water will start flowing on Jan. 1, 2022.

The council, with Councilwoman Meagan Harmon absent, hailed the agreement as the coming to fruition of a regional partnership that began to form and then dissolved in the early 1990s, when the city built – and mothballed – its first desalination plant in the wake of a six-year drought.

“We are going to be in drought cycles from here on out,” Councilman Eric Friedman said. “This really does us allow us flexibility.”

And, Friedman said, it’s a local water supply. In 1991, countywide voters approved the construction of a state aqueduct branch to Lake Cachuma, a $575 million project to import water from northern California. During the recent statewide drought of 2012 to 2018, the aqueduct supply dropped to five percent of what member agencies were entitled to. Faced with shortages, the Montecito Water District was forced to impose strict rationing and heavy penalties for over-watering.

Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, says the agreement with Montecito contradicts longstanding city policy: that desalination, an energy-intensive source of water, is to be used as a drought buffer only. (Courtesy photo)

 

But Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a nonprofit environmentalist group, objected to the agreement with Montecito on Tuesday. She told the council that it would keep the plant running, year in and year out, in contradiction of the city’s longstanding policy that desalination is for drought emergencies only. Redmond urged the council to conduct additional environmental review before proceeding with a 50-year commitment.

“You’re effectively making the decision to continue to operate your ‘desal’ facility at full capacity indefinitely – or worse, to expand its capacity to produce even more water … regardless of whether this water is even needed or makes economic sense,” Redmond said.

The city’s 2011 Long-Term Water Supply Plan states that the city’s desalination plant is “a back-up for potential prolonged drought.”

In an interview, Redmond said the city should put the plant in standby mode. At least, under the agreement, Santa Barbara will recoup some of the cost of construction, she said, but desalination is energy-intensive, harmful to the marine environment and “a significant move in the wrong direction.”

Channelkeeper promotes the use of potable recycled water, or wastewater that is treated to drinking water standards, in both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

In an interview, Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager, said the agreement with Montecito does allow the city to operate its desalination plant in standby mode – at a savings to the city of about $2 million yearly – so long as the city can supply Montecito with water from other sources.

“This agreement leaves the city with the ultimate flexibility on how we want to operate,” he said. “We still have to make decisions on an annual basis as to how we’re going to ensure we have adequate water to meet our needs.”

Those needs, Haggmark told the council, could include an eventual “pivot” from desalination to potable recycled water, although, he said, “The cost is astronomically higher.”

“I don’t believe any of the investments we’re making here today are taking away any opportunities we may have in the future,” Haggmark said.

For now, the desalination plant is operating at full capacity, meeting 30 percent of the city’s water demand. By relying equally on desalinated water and supplies from Lake Cachuma and Gibraltar Reservoir on the Santa Ynez River, the city is “resting” two groundwater basins that were depleted by heavy pumping during the drought, Haggmark said. The downtown basin has dropped so low that seawater intrusion is occurring, he said.

Once the basins have been replenished by rains, and Cachuma spills again – it hasn’t spilled since 2011 – the city can idle its desalination plant, Haggmark said. The agreement with Montecito, he said, is “insured by ‘desal,’ like the gold in Fort Knox as the ultimate backup,” but it doesn’t represent a change in city policy.

Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara water resources manager, was the lead negotiator for the city for the Water Supply Agreement with Montecito (Courtesy photo)

Santa Barbara’s original desalination plant cost $34 million. It was operated for only three months in 1992, then dismantled when the weather turned wet. As the city began to reactivate the plant in the depths of the recent drought, it relied on a 1996 state Coastal Commission permit stating that the plant could be used “to produce water for exchange with other water purveyors during non-drought periods,” but that “use of the desalination facility is expected to be infrequent.”

Channelkeeper was the only environmentalist group to sound a note of caution: the electricity needed for desalination, Redmond said, feeds the cycle of climate change and drought.

“Other communities that didn’t have a desalination plant started developing recycled water and stormwater capture, and we didn’t do that,” Redmond said this week. “The city spent all this money the first time around and they never used the plant, and they turned it off. The second time, they were in a desperate situation, and no environmental group would have been willing to say we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Redmond cites city data showing that, running at current capacity, the electricity required to filter and treat ocean water to drinking water standards at Santa Barbara’s plant has increased the total energy use in city-owned facilities by 50 percent.

Haggmark prefers to compare electrical use at the plant to electrical use throughout the city, including homes and businesses: the plant represents only four percent of the total. In October, 2021, the city plans to switch to 100 percent renewable power through a city-run Community Choice Energy program; when that happens, Haggmark said, greenhouse gas emissions from desalination will drop nearly to zero.

An update of the city’s long-term water supply plan is currently under review; a schedule of public hearings is available at https://www.santabarbaraca.gov/gov/depts/pw/resources/system/docs/watervision/get_involved/attend_meetings_and_workshops.asp

“Poison pill”?

The question of desalination as a short- or long-term supply will come up again on July 28, when the City Council considers whether to accept a $10 million state grant for the plant. The problem, as critics see it, is that the city would have to commit to operating the plant at full capacity during 36 the next 40 years in order to qualify for the grant.

“The community has been sold that the desal plant was to be our drought buffer,” city Water Commissioner Dave Davis wrote in a letter to the mayor and City Council last month. “If the money is accepted and, as intended, expended on other capital items, the next drought will require expansion of the plant at a cost of an additional tens of millions of dollars and again higher long-term water rates passed on to ratepayers. I don’t believe the public has had adequate input or say in making this decision.”

The water commission voted 3-1 on May 21 to recommend that the city accept the grant; Davis called the state’s operating condition a “poison pill” and voted no.

And at a commission meeting this month on the Water Supply Agreement with Montecito, Davis said that, had he been asked, he would have pushed for a 20-year renewable term because “fifty years is way too long.” The commission was given no role in drawing up the agreement.

The $10 million state grant for the desalination plant would come from Prop. 1 funds earmarked for improved water reliability, including desalinated supplies. Haggmark wants to use the money in part to construct a $10 million pipeline to convey desalinated water from the plant to the Mission, where it will connect to a line to the Cater Water Treatment Plant above Foothill Road. From there, the South Coast Conduit, a high-pressure pipeline, will carry the water to Montecito. The new pipeline will also allow for the distribution of desalinated water to more city customers.

The pipeline project was approved 6-0 by the City Council on Tuesday; construction is expected to begin in September. The Montecito Water District has agreed to pay 65 percent of the cost if and when the city decides to expand its desalination plant – an arrangement that Davis believes would tie the payment too closely to plant expansion and the “control over what desal is supposed to be.”

Haggmark said that accepting the state grant now is a business decision, not a decision on the long-term operation of the plant or the role of desalinated water in the city. The funding would come at a critical time, he said, because the city’s water revenues from businesses have declined sharply during COVD-19 stay-at-home orders. Haggmark said the city could repay the grant money to the state in the future, if the plant were to be operated solely as a drought buffer.*


Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service. She offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.
 

[*Editor's Note: A water story in the July 2 issue mischaracterized the terms of a proposed $10 million state grant for the city's desalination plant. Repayment would be required if the plant were to be operated solely as a drought buffer.]

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a-1593680339 Jul 02, 2020 01:58 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Too bad those of us who know how to conserve water and who work hard to keep our water use low will now have to be subjected to desalinated water. Robbing the ocean, killing off marine life for what? So Montecito and others who refuse to conserve can run their fountains and keep their expansive lawns lush? Does this mean more water meters now, too? More development?

Luvaduck Jul 02, 2020 07:25 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

So we're free to deplete ground water and Cachuma so Montecito can pretend they live in Hawaii or run the desal plant regardless of the weather. Is there an inflation clause? 50 years is a long time with or without global warming and climate change.

biguglystick Jul 03, 2020 01:55 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

I don't know about you guys, but it really pissed me off, seeing the uber wealthy 1-percenters in Montecito keep their green lawns lush and nearly tropical when we were in the deepest worst parts of the last drought! Selfish, selfish, selfish! The city was handing out free "GOLD IS THE NEW GREEN" signs while Montecito residents just watered their green acres willy-nilly. I'm not going to be ok with subsidizing OUR costs to keep their lawns green. They have enough already! And will more water mean more orange county-ish development sprawl in our little town? I hope not!

PitMix Jul 02, 2020 07:36 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Why haven't they addressed the antiquated ocean intake design? Does that open up a can of (sea) worms that causes problems in other areas? That and energy use seem to be the main stumbling blocks in the plants operation. One disconnect I see is that we are using potable water for everything in the house. Landscaping doesn't need disinfected water, and toilets certainly don't need potable water. Is there a way to design houses for smart water use in the future?

PitMix Jul 02, 2020 04:15 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Mattyboy, no way to design your house to recycle water without a duplicate City system? During the drought I used buckets of laundry rinse water to flush the toilet, and buckets of shower water to water the plants. There must be a way to automate that system within a household.

RHS Jul 02, 2020 10:01 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Don't know if Haggmark is simply a puppet of the city council and the city manager or if he is a buffoon. His constantly evolving double talk (he prefers to compare energy usage to the completely irrelevant total city consumption of electricity!?) and the lack of adult supervision of his department is sad. The facts are pretty simple: Local recycled water is hugely cheaper than desalinated water; imported State Water Project water is hugely cheaper than desalinated water; conserved water is hugely cheaper than desalinated water. Desalinated water is the most expensive water out there and it is environmentally bad. We got suckered in panic into entering into a contract for this second white elephant and now have a huge debt to the private vendor so hence the decision to give MWD a pretty cheap deal. The rate payers of SB are subsidizing the estates of Montecito.

PitMix Jul 02, 2020 04:17 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

What it means is that your water rates will be going up less fast now that the Montes are chipping in. If we get a 10 yr drought we will be looking like geniuses. If we get a 10-yr El Nino, we won't look so great. Which do you think is more likely?

Car Guy Jul 02, 2020 10:41 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Channelkeeper is all wet. We live in a desert and will continue to be in drought cycles, especially if the city continues to build more housing as they are now doing. Just look around at all the construction taking place. These units need water! Most coastal cities will eventually be on desalination as the only reliable source of water with other water supplies going to the agriculture .

a-1593717770 Jul 02, 2020 12:22 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

We experienced desalinated water when we lived on the Mesa, from the first plant. It tasted bad, and killed plants and tree. As Channel Keeper states, the policy (and former excuse) was that environmentally harmful desal should be a last resort, only after every other water consideration has been used, including recycling, conservation and limited development. The council chose to sell out the local population to support Montecito's heavy water consumption , and, using desal, keep on adding more population to the City.

Bene Jul 03, 2020 01:58 AM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

12:22, interesting that you experienced the first plant's crappy water. You are lucky you don't live on the Mesa now. This plant's water is so bad, that a large group of Mesa neighbors got together awhile back to complain to the water dept. about the terrible quality of the 100 Percent desal forced on Mesa area residents. I am hoping to move because it seems the city is never going to mix the desal with "real" water like they do with every other desal plant in CA. The Carlsbad plant mixes it, etc. Only in SB do they force some residents to suffer with 100 percent of the crap. Recycled water could not be this bad I'm sure.

a-1593719396 Jul 02, 2020 12:49 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

This is a water agreement, not a desal agreement. Currently, desal is the only buffer we have. Direct potable water is not allowed by State regulators. Groundwater basins can take very little water in our region. The City, Carpinteria, and Goleta already recycle non-potable irrigation water. To rely on State water is risky, expensive, and the least environmental option because transferring water from the Oroville Dam, north of Sacramento, to Lake Cachuma is much more energy-intensive than desal. If State regulators allow direct potable water years from now, the City is free to pursue it and shut down desal. Like it or not, desal is the only alternative at the present time. Conservation has helped in the last ten years, but can only go so far.

RHS Jul 02, 2020 01:14 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Stop repeating the nonsense. SWP water is not more energy intensive than desalination! The amount of energy needed to force seawater through the membranes is huge. This is why desalinated water is about 3 1/2 times more expensive than SWP. SWP water is about $1200 AF compared to $3500-4000 AF for desal. And please note, there is NO present need for desalinated water. There are good local reserves and plenty of SWP. Your statement that we can "shut down" the desal plant is only technically correct. Even if we do shut it down (again!) we still have to pay the private contractor for decades so it is pretty much a mess all the way around. Bad management for sure.

a-1593726562 Jul 02, 2020 02:49 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Your statement is non-factual. This year State water cost 3-4x more than desal. Water districts pay the same amount regardless of delivery. We only received 10-15% of our allotment this year. You do the math.

a-1593726601 Jul 02, 2020 02:50 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Your statement is non-factual. This year State water cost 3-4x more than desal. Water districts pay the same amount regardless of delivery. We only received 10-15% of our allotment this year. You do the math.

PitMix Jul 02, 2020 04:19 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

3:15, no one has toilet to tap in CA. The closest is injection into groundwater for 6 months, then treatment. Recycled water here is used for landscaping and golf courses. Has high TDS so not optimal for that either.

RHS Jul 02, 2020 06:37 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Orange County and southern Los Angeles County water districts have been injecting 'used water' into the aquifer and then pumping it out to use for domestic purposes for a good while. This is done around the world and in some places like Singapore a majority of their domestic supply is recycled water. The State of CA is allegedly studying this but it will happen if the lobbyists for desal get out of the way. All water is recycled.

RHS Jul 02, 2020 06:47 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Orange County and southern Los Angeles County water districts have been injecting 'used water' into the aquifer and then pumping it out to use for domestic purposes for a good while. This is done around the world and in some places like Singapore a majority of their domestic supply is recycled water. The State of CA is allegedly studying this but it will happen if the lobbyists for desal get out of the way. All water is recycled.

RHS Jul 02, 2020 06:49 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

2:49 PM: Here are the facts as to the cost of water in California from the California Public Utilities Commission: "Desalination is the ultimate plentiful source, but it is very expensive compared to our traditional sources of water. At about $3,400 /Acre-Foot on average among the examples collected for this report, it is more than four times as costly as traditional sources of water." Jan 12, 2016

biguglystick Jul 03, 2020 01:56 PM
Santa Barbara Seals 50-Year Deal To Sell Water To Montecito

Not to mention that MANY of the "residents" in Montecito are second homes to the very wealthy, or celebrities like Oprah, who are rarely there. Hope we keep all of this new deal very transparent.

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