As I sat outside enjoying my dinner at a Santa Barbara restaurant, the view was of a sprinkler spraying water directly into a storm drain. In the midst of a Stage 2 drought, this is an unacceptable waste of a finite resource. For a city that prides itself on starting the environmental movement, Santa Barbara values and treats water in few environmentally friendly ways. The city is doing too little too late, and water supplied by a $40 million desalination plant should not be an option.
Lake Cachuma was full and spilled over in March 2011. Within four years, we would not be facing a desalination plant if water conservation had been taken seriously earlier and if water supplies were more diverse. The desalination plant will require a massive amount of energy that will emit greenhouse gases and potentially harm the ocean ecosystem, and we will lose money by paying higher water rates.
The first and most difficult water conservation practice Santa Barbara needs to implement is to correctly value the price of water. Because water is currently undervalued monetarily, people can afford to waste it. One solution is to tie water rates to the level of Lake Cachuma, which supplies 79 percent of Santa Barbara’s water. The city should establish a set rate increase for each percentage drop in lake level and use tiered pricing systems that charge more to high users. The public will stay aware of water supply, and consumers will be encouraged to view the resource as a shared commodity.
The city should also increase water rates for agricultural use. Currently, ag water rates are less than half of residential rates. But a bike ride between Santa Barbara and UCSB shows fields with sprinklers spraying water high into the air. These fields could use drip irrigation methods to save water, and if water were more expensive, this would happen. Profits for growers may initially decrease, and jobs may be in danger, but if rates only rise enough to make conservation necessary, jobs shouldn’t be lost.
For all water users, a simple solution is to make water conservation rebates easier to understand. According to the City of Santa Barbara, the rebate is 50 percent of the cost of pre-approved water-wise plants and irrigation equipment. This is confusing and requires a large effort to understand how much money we will receive for a rebate. I do not want to go to a store and figure out how much a project will cost and how much I will get back. I want an easy, fast number. A better solution is to follow the example of Las Vegas and give that solid number. Las Vegas offers a rebate of $1.50 per square foot of grass converted to xeriscaping, which is landscaping needing very little water. Which this information, we can walk outside with a tape measure and know precisely how much money the city will pay us.
The third solution to securing a sustainable water supply is to incorporate low impact developments (LID) within the city. These rain gardens or bioswales capture storm water and move it into a natural drainage that recharges the groundwater and decreases urban runoff, which has a tendency to pool at inconvenient places. Almost any rain event in Santa Barbara results in streets with poor drainage and standing dirty water. LIDs can capture this water and act as a filter to remove pollutants that would otherwise flow into the ocean. The water is absorbed into the aquifer and less runs in the streets, which means there’s less chance we will get sick from swimming in the ocean after it rains.
The fourth solution is to take a serious look into stocking underground drinking water supplies with recycled wastewater. Orange Country currently uses this technology and supplies 2.4 million people with clean water. I believe Orange County’s water tastes the same as ours, and I encourage you to test this hypothesis. Recycled wastewater technology costs about one quarter of ocean desalination. And a shocking 8.5 million gallons of waste water are discharged every day in the City of Santa Barbara, which is about 94 gallons per person per day. Using this water as drinking water will take pressure off Lake Cachuma and potentially allow more water to flow down the Santa Ynez River. The endangered steelhead habitat would benefit and aquifers will be recharged, which the Santa Ynez Valley wineries desperately need.
Santa Barbara was once a leader in a healthy, sustainable environmental movement. It needs to become a leader again and incorporate techniques other than desalination to supply its residents. With a growing population and potential climate changes, the city needs to step up and build an environmentally sustainable water supply.