City Forced to Swallow $1.7 Million Water Filter Mistake

Wrong Parts Were Purchased for Santa Barbara's Reclaimed-Water System

Efforts to have the city’s reclaimedwater system rebuilt and running in time for this summer’s high temperatures ​— ​and even higher water demand ​— ​hit a serious setback when it turned out the project designer used the wrong waterquality data when calculating what kind of filters were needed to bring treated effluent up to state field-irrigation standards.

Because the water-quality data was wrong, the filters purchased for the task are not adequate, and new ones have to be bought. This will set the project back at least three months and by as much as $1.7 million. Exactly where the wrong data came from and how the project designer came to rely on them remains very much an unanswered question, despite Councilmember Dale Francisco’s repeated attempts to ask it at this Tuesday’s council meeting. The main point, according to Mayor Helene Schneider and Public Works administrators, was to move forward as fast as possible; that meant digging into City Hall cash reserves to bring what’s become a $13 million construction project to fruition.

Santa Barbara’s reclaimed-water system was first built in 1989 in response to the last major drought. By irrigating fields, parks, and larger properties with reclaimed wastewater, the intent was to reduce the demand for potable ​— ​drinkable and bathable ​— ​water. The project was expensive to build and expensive to run, but 800 acre-feet of water in times of drought was significant.

In the past five years, however, the project had come into serious disrepair. At best, 30 percent of the water delivered via purple pipes was non-potable. The rest came from the city’s drinking supply. By the time City Hall set about to fix the old system ​— ​under relentless hectoring from former water commissioner Russell Ruiz ​— ​the current drought began achieving critical mass. In the past 15 months, most of the water coursing through the purple pipes has been potable, though non-drinkable water produced by the city’s Val Verde well has made a significant contribution.

According to Public Works chief Rebecca Bjork, the private consultant hired to design the new project used the wrong numbers, pure and simple. The contractor has agreed that the water-quality specifications were incorrect but has reportedly not stated where the wrong numbers came from. And there’s been no agreement how much ​— ​if anything ​— ​the contractor will pay City Hall back for the mistake. At Tuesday’s council meeting, City Attorney Ariel Calonne said his department is “looking at dispute resolution,” meaning the next time the council hears about the issue it will be behind the closed doors reserved for litigation and possible litigation.

Exactly how much extra City Hall will have to spend to reactivate the reclaimed-water plant is a semi-squishy number. Public Works staffers estimate it will cost an additional $1.3 million, but with change work orders thrown in just in case, they recommended the council authorize the expenditure of $1.77 million in reserves. With little discussion, debate, or venting, the council voted 7-0 to do just that.


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