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Of Mega Dogs and Mega Droughts

How to Read the Mona Lisa Smile of Water Czar Joshua Haggmark


WATT, ME WORRY? I don’t know how many dogs Joshua Haggmark kicks when he gets home, but out in public, he manages to exude a good-natured, if harried, sense of the absurd. His survival no doubt depends on it. Ours does, too. Haggmark was recently put in charge of the City of Santa Barbara’s water department just as the teeth of the current drought first crunched bone. When he took over, Santa Barbara found itself confronting three of the hottest, driest consecutive years of recorded history. By then, Santa Barbara’s network of wells had grown dangerously arthritic. The city’s long-neglected network of purple pipes making up the reclaimed water system was officially declared dead. The Gibraltar Reservoir had been rendered useless by massive quantities of silt generated by the Zaca Fire, and Lake Cachuma was on its way to becoming a mud milkshake.

Angry Poodle

And now, we’re in year four.

In recent weeks, Haggmark has been charged with securing the necessary permits to reactivate the city’s desalination plant, built 24 years ago for $34 million in response to the last great drought and then quickly shut down after torrential rains. Today, desal qualifies as City Hall’s nuclear option, the red button you push when all else fails. To keep that option alive, Haggmark found himself forced to convince two powerful state agencies ​— ​the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Coastal Commission ​— ​that Santa Barbara didn’t need their stinking badges, because we already had all the permits we needed. It was a tough sell. And for a lot of good reasons. For starters, the city’s desalination plant is so antiquated the computers in its control room still have floppy disks. With the number of desalination plants proposed for the California coast jumping from 18 in 2006 to 26 in 2013 ​— ​two of which are $1 billion behemoths capable of producing 50 million gallons of water a day ​— ​the two aforementioned state boards decided California needed a coherent statewide policy. According to the policy developed thus far, Santa Barbara’s desal plant could never be approved and permitted today. To protect nearby aquatic critters from getting sucked in, squashed, ground up, and otherwise dismembered, new plants need to pump their water from intake wells sunk far beneath the ocean floor. By contrast, Santa Barbara’s intake pipes lie right on top of the ocean floor. For the record, neither state agency was comfortable with this. Making matters worse, it turns out the regional water board seriously screwed up when originally permitting the city’s desal 24 years ago. It failed to make one of two key findings absolutely required at that time ​— ​namely that every effort had been made to spare the surrounding sea life. To rectify this omission, current water boardmembers were being asked to travel back in time and make that finding after the fact. Otherwise, there would be no red button to push. Understandably, some boardmembers balked. This was, as they say, highly irregular and unprecedented. The factual evidence used to support this finding ​— ​based on biological studies conducted 30 years ago and 40 miles away ​— ​was flimsy back then. It hadn’t gotten any better with the passage of time. In the end, the boardmembers held their noses and endorsed Santa Barbara’s plant. But Haggmark would lose eight pounds in sweat before they did so.

More recently, the Coastal Commission had a bite at our desal apple. Many of the commissioners found the ossified technology troubling in the extreme. Just two months prior, they’d deep-sixed a billion-dollar desal plant proposed in Huntington Beach that would deploy the same ocean-floor intake as Santa Barbara’s. Commissioners asked sharp, probing questions. The chair exhorted Santa Barbara to enter the 21st century. But in the end, they voted unanimously in Santa Barbara’s favor. Santa Barbara wasn’t asking permission to build a new plant; it was seeking approval to repair an existing one. The commissioners had no choice.

I’m struck by the lack of debate within the environmental community. It’s true, some activists have shown up regularly, arguing the desal plant will inflict unacceptable levels of “entrainment and impingement” on nearby sea creatures. But anyone using words like entrainment (sucking larvae in) and impingement (pinning smaller fish up against intake screens) ​— ​has transcended the realm of popular comprehension. Given mounting concern about Climate Weirdness ​— ​and now Mega Drought ​— ​I’m also surprised more hasn’t been made of the greenhouse gases generated in the production of vast quantities of power needed to run desal plants. According to some water conservation advocates, the plant will consume the energy equivalent of 1,322 new households. To produce that, all 90,000 city residents would have to pedal their bikes four hours a day. Every gallon of desal water, they say, produces a gallon of CO2. Chilling stuff. Given 50 percent of our water consumption goes for landscaping, one would think we could conserve our way out of this mess without having to pull the trigger on a $42 million “reactivation” project. One would also think if City Hall covered the cost of building the plant by charging customers according to how much water they actually used, consumption would be curtailed so fast and furious desal would be rendered unnecessary. (But then, what if it doesn’t rain?)

Naturally, it ain’t that simple. Montecitans have cut back water consumption by nearly 50 percent in the past year. That’s a good thing, right? But because of reduced water sales, annual costs for the Montecito Water District now exceed revenues by about $6 million. In other words, Montecito went deep into the red by keeping its lawns brown. The district is now considering a conservation surcharge on its customers’ water bills; the more customers conserve, the higher the rate of the surcharge. Last year, we were told Montecito was going bone dry. Now, district managers are exhorting customers to use more. In an absurd way, it makes perfect sense.

In the meantime, I hope Joshua Haggmark can keep on smiling. But if I were a dog, I’d keep a safe distance.



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