Technical committee (L to R) Martin Feeney, Amy Childress, Heather Collins, and Eric Zigas discuss desal technology and recycled sewage water.

A panel of four certified Big Brains when it comes to high tech water technology held the first of four public workshops this Wednesday in Santa Barbara City Hall to explore the feasibility of converting the six million gallons of treated sewage water the City of Santa Barbara flushes out to sea each day into potable water. In addition, the panel — convened by the National Water Research Institute — will explore the extent to which more environmentally kinder, gentler sea water intake technology could be deployed at the city’s soon-to-be-refurbished desalination plant as opposed to the surface intake valves now approved — and decried by Channelkeeper and other environmental organizations — that will lie along the bottom of the ocean floor sucking in more than 15,000 gallons of sea water per minute.

A technical committee discusses desal technology and recycled sewage water at City Hall. (Aug. 5, 2015)

The results of this study must be completed and turned into the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) by June 2017, about half a year after the desalination plant is scheduled to begin production. What impact the alternative study can have is a matter of great conjecture. If any feasible alternatives were to be identified, there’s no requirement that City Hall actually do anything but consider the report.

When RWQCB bestowed its blessing on City Hall’s existing desalination permits this January, its members were of many minds and hearts on the matter. It turned out the existing permits for the plant, which opened in 1992 and shut down 419 acre-feet later in 1994, were issued without one of two key findings having been made. Glaringly missing was the finding that the desal plant’s impact on surrounding sea life had been mitigated to the maximum extent feasible. Back in January, it appeared two major lawsuits could be filed in response to the proposed desalination plant. First, City Hall made it clear it would go nuclear if RWQCB sought to interfere with the desal plant. Secondly, environmentalists were rattling sabers about a possible lawsuit based on insufficient environmental review. In response to all that legal bluster, Mayor Helene Schneider and the City Council voted unanimously to conduct this feasibility. RWQCB members took it a step further, requiring that the study be included as a permit condition for the desalination plant. Some board members argued City Hall should be bound by the study results — whatever they were — but City Hall made it clear that was unacceptable; a number of Big Shots with RWQCB’s parent agency showed up to say it was unacceptable to them too.

This Wednesday’s meeting constituted much talking about talking about: how the highly technical exercise would unfold, what deadlines were at play, and who was invited to the table to participate. Attending the event was a bountiful showing of tight-jawed engineers, uniformly serious of mien, paying grim attention to the proceedings. Most, by far, were males. Conspicuously lacking was much, if any, display of body fat.

Doing much of the talking for City Hall was Joshua Haggmark, its ubiquitous water czar. He outlined the history of desalination in Santa Barbara and stressed how necessary the plant’s resurrection would be come next year should the much-heralded El Niño not dump bucketsful as predicted. Without desal, he warned, City Hall would experience a 60 percent shortfall in its water supply by 2016. And that’s assuming water customers cut back by 25 percent as they have done.

Eric Cherasia, Joshua Haggmark, and Tom Seacord present data on desal technology and recycled sewage water.

The same panel of experts has simultaneously been charged with exploring the possibility of Santa Barbara tapping its treated sewage water that’s now discharged into the ocean, treating it, and eventually injecting it into the city’s groundwater basins for eventual consumption. In engineer-speak, this technology is loosely described as “potable re-use,” but that comes in two distinct flavors — direct and indirect injection.

Among the panel of experts, there was some disquiet that the two study subjects were so segregated. If the two could be studied in a complimentary fashion — in which one compensates for the shortages of the other — a feasible alternative might be crafted. Haggmark stressed that the deadline pressure under which the group labored was already intense enough. By allowing the exploration of any new wrinkles, he cautioned, the deadlines would be all but impossible to meet.

A couple expert panelists expressed concern that some alternatives that are technically feasible are impossible for economic or political reasons. Yes, said one, it’s possible to build a seven-mile pipeline hauling treated wastewater from the wastewater treatment plant to the Laurel Canyon treatment facility in the San Roque foothills. But it was never going to happen, so why pretend otherwise.

Conversely, desal critics like Kira Redmond with Channelkeeper expressed concern that the bar to feasibility is being set too high. For example, she questioned the wisdom of requiring that any subsurface intake pipe alternatives be capable of generating 120,000 acre-feet of water per year, the maximum production the plant is permitted for. If City Hall is talking about starting the plant at a production capacity of 3,125 acre-feet per year — with the possibility of bumping to 7,500 — why insist on a 10,000 acre-foot max? By so doing, she argued, viable alternatives could easily get lost in the shuffle. Likewise, she argued that just because subsurface intake pipes are more expensive to build and install than surface intake pipes, the former should not automatically be deemed “infeasible.”

Environmentalist Kira Redmond of Channelkeeper listens to the committe.
Paul Wellman

The panelists will be evaluating “feasibility” according to 13 separate standards, one of which involves seismic intrusion. If a desal plant were to be permitted today, state regulatory panels would insist that subsurface intake technology be installed to minimize the impact on marine life. Santa Barbara’s permits were allowed to be extended — even with ocean floor intake valves — because they were permitted before and the permits were deemed current. City Hall has agreed to install fine mesh screens over the intake valves to soften the impact on microscopic marine life and fish larvae sucked in. Likewise, the city has pledged to run the pumps at relatively low velocities to reduce the number of small fish “impinged” on the screens. The study will examine stretches of East Beach, West Beach and Leadbetter Beach to see if subsurface wells can be installed within a half-mile of the coast capable of producing water in volumes sufficient to address the drought.

According to Santa Barbara Water Commissioner Barry Keller, there are federal seismic studies dating back to 1984 indicating there may be a significant fault 2,000 feet off the coast. The same reports, he said, indicate that the subsurface strata on the far side of the fault is solid rock, suggesting that subsurface well drilling would be technically impossible. Keller added, however, that they’re reasons to doubt the results of this study. Test well holes might need to be bored to determine one way or the other.

Raising general concerns about both approaches was Edo McGowan, a former environmental health officer with the United Nations, who questioned the extent to which antibiotic-resistant bacteria spawned by the sewage treatment plant and then sucked as plume into the desal plant might pose public health risks. UCSB environmental filmmaker Mariah Brennan Clegg argued climate change contributed in significant measure to the intensity of the drought and questioned the wisdom of seeking salvation from that drought with a technology reliant on the sort of heavy energy consumption that caused climate change in the first place.

The potable re-use study will be completed first, the experts decided. Currently, the state allows for what’s called indirect application of such treated sewage water, by allowing it to be spread into rivers and creeks, through which it can filter into the groundwater basins slowly and gradually. That natural process is cleansing in and of itself. Santa Barbara’s groundwater basins, however, are relatively shallow and there’s not much room to store much treated water. Nor is there much available room at the city’s wastewater treatment facility to house the necessary pipes and pumps and infrastructure. A more direct injection method is talked about, but to date no state guidelines or safety thresholds exist. According to the conventional wisdom on such matters, any such guidelines are at least five years away.


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