Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

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Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito
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A Google Earth photo gives a bird's-eye view of the golf courses at the Birnam Wood Golf Club and Valley Club on East Valley Road in Montecito, two of the largest water users in the community. According to a recent study for the Montecito Water District, it would cost $16 million to develop a wastewater reclamation project that could supply the golf courses and other large commercial properties with non-potable recycled water for irrigation.

By Melinda Burns

The current five members of the Montecito Water Board ran as slate candidates in 2016 and 2108, and they won election largely on the promise of recycling treated wastewater for irrigation. A group of wealthy donors poured $200,000 into their campaigns.

Yet the new board seems in no hurry to get the job done.

Board members have signaled their “intent to pursue” a $16 million project, one that would provide non-potable recycled wastewater for irrigation at the Birnam Wood and Valley Club golf courses, Santa Barbara Cemetery, Music Academy of the West and Biltmore and Miramar hotels, some of the biggest water customers in Montecito.

But the water board won’t likely vote on the project until October, at the earliest. Environmentalists are upset, but the board has called for more studies of Montecito’s ground water basins to find out whether treated wastewater could be injected into them and used as a future drinking supply. Because advanced treatment would be required, a ground water injection project is estimated cost as much as $31 million.

“I’m not sure what the studies may show,” said Director Ken Coates, who was elected to the water board in November. “We are a long way from having hard answers to a lot of questions. I think it’s premature to know when we might be ready for a hard vote.”

According to the board’s timeline, Montecito’s recycled water project, whatever it is, will not be completed until mid-2022.

Since the November election, the water board and Montecito Sanitary District board have struggled to understand each other. Two slate candidates won election to the sanitary district board, but they do not form the majority there.

Sanitary district board President Tom Bollay, who was not a slate candidate, says the sanitary district could have a recycling plant up and operating on its property at 1042 Monte Cristo Lane by the summer of 2020, with a price tag of well under $5 million.

It could be the “first phase” of a larger recycled water project, Bollay said, and it would serve non-potable irrigation water through “purple pipes” to the sanitary district’s immediate neighbors – the Santa Barbara Cemetery, the Music Academy of the West, and, possibly, the Biltmore.

“There’s no need to go to the higher expense of extra purification if ultimately we’re going to use the water for irrigation anyway,” Bollay said.

Heal the Ocean, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit group, supports the sanitary district’s approach. The water district, said Hillary Hauser, the group’s executive director, is just “fooling around.”

“Why do they want to spend ratepayer money to treat wastewater to Sparkletts quality when it’s not necessary?” she asked. “Heal the Ocean wants to see recycled water as soon as possible in Montecito. No more studies. Build this thing, exclamation point!”

In addition to studying the ground water basins, water board members say they will look into whether a recycling plant could be designed, financed and operated by a private company more cheaply than by the sanitary district.

Meanwhile, the sanitary district is planning to move ahead this summer with a pilot wastewater recycling project on a small scale. It will produce non-potable water to irrigate the landscaping on sanitary district property and flush the sewer pipelines.

At an April 2 meeting with water board members, sanitary district officials floated the idea of testing the pilot project across the street at the cemetery, to determine what blend of non-potable water would work best on grass.

“We may be able to actually start doing something,” Bollay said.

But Floyd Wicks, the water board president, said, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The Santa Barbara Cemetery, a potential customer for non-potable recycled water in Montecito, lies on Channel Drive within a stone’s throw of the Montecito Sanitary District (Photo by Melinda Burns)


“Where’s the plan?”

Goleta and Santa Barbara have been recycling wastewater for irrigation for more than 25 years, but the Montecito Water Board never embraced the idea. Only 15 percent of the water supply in the community of one-acre lots, large estates and luxury resorts is used indoors and can be recovered through the sewer system.

A recycled water supply for Montecito “shouldn’t be considered a significant drought relief measure,” a report for the water board stated in 2015.

But residents were rattled by mandatory rationing during the recent seven-year drought. About 10 percent of water district customers incurred penalties for overwatering, and the penalties were high. At the Birnam Wood Golf Club on East Valley Road, two water district irrigation wells failed. The recent campaigns for slate candidates garnered large donations from Birnam Wood and Valley Club members.

At an April 10 meeting of the sanitary district board, with water board members in the audience, Bob Hazard, a Birnam Wood resident, associate editor of the Montecito Journal and major donor to the 2016 and 2018 slate campaigns, expressed frustration with the slow pace of progress. He urged both boards to act soon on recycled water, whether the project cost $20 million, $30 million or $40 million, he said.

“Where’s the plan?” Hazard asked.

The 2015 report concluded that Montecito’s shallow ground water basins, dense with private wells, had “limited recharge potential” even after long droughts. But Wicks, the water board president, said the latest drought has drawn down the underground water to historical lows, potentially providing more space for injecting wastewater that has undergone advanced treatment.

“We’re at the stage where all these ideas are swirling around,” Wicks said. “ … We’re trying to do what’s best for the community, and speed is not something that is going to give you the best answer all the time.”

The more wastewater that can be treated and recycled, the less that has to be discharged into the ocean, he said, adding, “That’s an intrinsic benefit you can’t put a price on.”

But Bollay is not so sure.

“Just because it’s the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it’s affordable to the community,” he said.

The cost of new water

Even as it postpones a decision on recycled water, the Montecito Water District is actively pursuing an agreement with the City of Santa Barbara for a share of the city’s water supply. To sell surplus water to Montecito, the city would expand its desalination plant; the resulting cost to Montecito and Summerland ratepayers would be up to $5 million per year for the next 50 years, rain or no rain.

The board is expected to vote on the deal this summer, following a rate study and public hearings. 

In recent letters to the Montecito Journal, Bob Roebuck, a former general manager of the Montecito Water District (MWD), warned customers to be prepared for “a serious increase in their monthly bills.” His own bill would increase by 80 percent, he said, from $150 to more than $270, to pay for desalinated and recycled water – projects he said Montecito doesn’t need.

Roebuck called the proposed deal with Santa Barbara “a terrible waste of MWD customer funds.” Montecito has recently shown that it can import enough water through the state aqueduct to weather a long drought, he said. “Even in the worst conceivable water shortage,” Roebuck said, the district’s ground water supply can easily meet customers’ indoor water demand.

In an interview this month, Roebuck said that if the two golf courses want recycled water, maybe they should pay for it.

“Why does a Montecito Water District customer have to pay?” he asked.

About 43 percent of the non-potable recycled water produced in Goleta and more than half in Santa Barbara goes to public properties such as parks and schools. In Montecito, close to 100 percent of any non-potable supply would likely go to private commercial properties.

Birnam Wood already enjoys the lowest water rates in Montecito – $1.40 per hundred cubic feet of irrigation water from five non-potable district wells serving the golf course. By contrast, the lowest rates for agricultural operations and single-family homes in Montecito are $3.00 and $5.40 per hundred cubic feet of drinking water, respectively.

At the April 2 meeting, sanitary district officials asked their water board colleagues if they had considered the Pebble Beach model in Carmel, Calif., where the $67 million cost of a recycled water plant – built in 1994 and later expanded and updated – is paid for by golfers and residents of the world-famous resort.

Brian Goebel, one of the new water board directors, said a non-potable supply in Montecito would free up drinking water for all residents.

“The community benefits, the community pays,” he said. Goebel said the water and sanitary districts should jointly develop “talking points” to convey that message.

“I would like to get us singing from the same songbook on this,” he said.

“The election is over”

In a recent memo to the sanitary district, Hauser alleged that former slate candidates now on the board were trying to further the agenda of their donors – namely, she said, possible consolidation of the water and sanitary districts; using the sanitary district property for a future desalination plant, and “not needing” the sanitary district general manager.

But speaking from the audience at the April 10 meeting of the Sanitary District board, Ken Coates, a water board member, said, “I’m sorry, Hillary, you’re wrong.”

“The election is over,” he said. “The campaigning has ended. We all need to move on. It sounds like we are all on the same page and we have a common goal. We should not be complaining about elephants that are not in the room.”

Woody Barrett, one of two former slate candidates on the sanitary district board, asked Hauser, “Have you ever run for public office? When you run as a slate, you become friends with these guys. We’ve all been throwing ideas back and forth.”

And Goebel, the water board member, said, “The process has been very collaborative so far. Everyone has come to these meetings with the goal that we’re going to do the best recycling project we can.”

In her memo, Hauser also asked district board members not to confer with Hazard after public meetings.

“When I leave these meetings, I see huddles in the parking lot afterward,” she wrote. “They are always the board members elected by the Committee for Water Security and sometimes Mr. Hazard, who is well known for advancing the Committee’s purpose … I should think board members would want to avoid the appearance of collusion.”

But Coates said, “The Committee has not met for six months. There’s no conspiracy here, there’s no cabal. Many of these things are figments of people’s imagination.”

Just because Hazard favors district consolidation doesn’t mean he has the support of the former slate for that idea, Coates said, adding, “Please, let’s stay focused on what the voters asked us to do.”

Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.

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Factotum Apr 18, 2019 08:26 PM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Green is the new green, since it turns C02 into O2. Having acres of green grass and trees reduces your carbon footprint.

a-1555601771 Apr 18, 2019 08:36 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Wicks seems to not understand groundwater recharge. We have damaged our groundwater basins irreparably across the state in the last few droughts. For the type of aquifers in Montecito, further pumping (since the 2015 report) does not make it more likely they can be recharged, it makes it less likely.

PitMix Apr 18, 2019 09:47 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Are you saying the GW basins in Montecito are confined basins and the sediments have been compressed by being overdrawn and can't be recharged any more? Otherwise with unconfined aquifers, they should be able to be recharged unless the pore spaces have been reduced. I haven't heard that this has caused significant land subsidence in that area so am concluding this has not happened.

RHS Apr 18, 2019 08:54 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Once again Montecito demonstrates why it is rich and you are not. They are adept at taking from others and giving little in exchange. The City of Santa Barbara politicians (in pretty obvious exchange for political contributions to their campaigns by the Montecito powers) have agreed to allow Montecito to benefit immensely from the overbuilt desalination plant paid for by SB city water users. Now Montecito is backing off of its obvious responsibility to stop the over drafting of water from its own water source. This can be done by either reducing or limiting the number of wells sucking out of the aquifer or replenishing that source by returning treated water for later withdrawal. This later technique is used in many places, including Orange County and LA County. But it would require the economically distressed folks in Montecito to actually pay for their own excess. Probably won't happen.

yacht rocked Apr 18, 2019 05:00 PM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

It's a situation where the metered water rate-payers get hosed no matter what's decided. If recycling is implemented, the big golf private golf courses, the Music Academy, and the beachfront hotels get subsidized water paid for by the ratepayers. If 'sparkletts' level water is output and injected to recharge the groundwater basin, the 1,500 or so well owners get fresh water, once again subsidized by metered water customers. If a private company gets involved, they will want a profit (cost plus anyone?) and will have additional influence over the water and sewer districts, with a likely outcome to push to privatize them. If paying your water and sewer bill is set to autopay from your brokerage account, you might not care, but if you're a bit further down the economic ladder, these decisions made by the big boys may have real consequences in your life. But then again, it's hard to "give a fig" when it comes to Montecito Journal editorial stances.

a-1555641619 Apr 18, 2019 07:40 PM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Stop worrying about it. Oprah pays over 1 million a year in proprty taxes. She should be able to get a little extra water for goodness sakes. I wish I had that kind of dough, vut I do not and eill not.

RHS Apr 19, 2019 10:38 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

She buys water by the truckload. No need for others to pay for what she wants--she is not royalty and this nation does not recognize such anyway.

a-1555699856 Apr 19, 2019 11:50 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Hate to break it to you but no property is worth $1Billion which is what Oprah's property must be valued at to be taxed at the level you claim. If you way over exaggerate on this point everything else is nonsense too.

a-1555703856 Apr 19, 2019 12:57 PM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

Break it to me Baby...1633 east valley road....Property Tax...1st installment 11.01.2018 $503,279, 2nd installment 3.27.19 $503,279...that would be over 1 million US dollareenies, clams, bucks, smackers, bones, and so on.

Factotum Apr 18, 2019 08:25 PM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

How much to rent a large tanker ship and bring water from the Central American rain forests for use in Montecito. Could be a new growth industry for our neighbors to the south. Provide stable employment for their own population.

All Sides Apr 19, 2019 11:12 AM
Water Recycling Stalls in Montecito

I wonder what Montecito will name their treatment plant? And how much they will pay someone to help them?

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