Santa Barbara city water czar Joshua Haggmark has managed to at least appear upbeat and positive throughout one of the worst droughts in California history, but this Tuesday, he looked every bit as beleaguered as anyone in his position must feel. With the end of the month right around the corner and no sign of rain on the horizon, the much anticipated “Miracle March” rains promised by El Niño have not delivered. “As of the end of March, this is the new drought of record,” Haggmark said. “We have now gone into completely new territory.”
By the summer, half of what little water is left in Lake Cachuma could be claimed by evaporation. Even if 40 acre-feet a day are pumped into the reservoir — the maximum amount possible — as much as 25 acre-feet per day could be lost to evaporation. Haggmark expressed guarded optimism that Santa Barbara can make it into 2018 if residents ratchet up their conservation from 30 percent to 35. The resulting loss of water sales will punch such a hole in the city’s water revenues that rates, Haggmark said, will have to go up by 11-22 percent. The city’s backup Gibraltar Reservoir is so silted in that it can provide only enough supply for one and a half months. If that weren’t bad news enough, one of the city’s seven wells crashed after three years of nonstop use.
In addition, the refurbished water recycling plant — which delivers treated wastewater to city parks, fields, golf courses, and other large outdoor areas — is failing to deliver anything close to what it should. The new plant — scheduled to go online this spring — was supposed to have the capacity to treat and deliver four million gallons a day. It can barely produce one-sixth that amount. The membranes purchased by the contractor failed to perform. What the remedy is remains to be seen. Reliance on this water increases during summer months. To make up the shortfall, city water engineers will have to add potable water into the mix or let vast acreages go from green to tawny brown to burnt umber.
City Hall’s ace in the hole remains the desalination plant now under radical reconstruction efforts budgeted to cost $55 million. In order to secure the permits necessary from the Regional Water Quality Control Board, City Hall agreed to study more environmentally friendly alternatives to the old-school, open-ocean-intake technology deployed when the facility was first built at the end of the last drought in 1992.
Environmental critics like Kira Redmond with Channelkeeper charged that the city’s intake technology kills “trillions” of marine organisms a day. She’s pushed for alternatives known as subsurface intake that suck water from the sands underneath the ocean floor. This Tuesday, Haggmark explained that none of the six alternatives studied were “feasible.” By that, he meant none of them were capable of producing 10,000 acre-feet of water a year, the maximum capacity of the plant. Redmond scorched Haggmark and the alternatives study, dismissing the effort as “disingenuous” and “extremely disappointing.”
Redmond questioned why the 10,000 acre-foot yardstick was deployed given that City Hall is only contemplating producing 3,125 acre-feet a year once the plant starts operating this fall. Four of the six alternatives, she said, are capable of reliably producing many thousands of acre-feet annually. City water planners deliberately chose the 10,000 acre-foot metric, she charged, to achieve their desired goal of effectively disqualifying any alternatives. She noted that the Regional Water board expressed similar concerns, though in decidedly more muted tones.
Haggmark explained that the 10,000 acre-foot benchmark was used because that’s the maximum amount the plant is permitted to produce. He insisted that the information generated by the study could be fruitful in future policy discussions about what role desalinated water should play if and when the drought ends. Councilmember Cathy Murillo asked Haggmark a few challenging questions and expressed skepticism that the new information could or would be put to meaningful use once the desal plant is up and operating.
Councilmember Bendy White came to Haggmark’s defense, first telling him, “Not much is going right. You are on the hot seat,” but then adding, “I appreciate your work and tenacity.” White took exception to Redmond’s presumption of bad faith on Haggmark’s part and her use of the word “disingenuous.” If the drought doesn’t end, he predicted, “We could be producing 10,000 acre-feet a year if we come up again with snake eyes.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story had Haggmark saying one of six intake alternatives were feasible. He had said “none” are.