Ready for Recycled Water?

It's 'Where the Future Lies,' South Coast Officials Say

Heal the Ocean’s Hillary Hauser has been banging the gong long and loud on behalf of recycled water.
Paul Wellman

As the drought drags on, South Coast agencies are scrambling to lay the groundwork for a potable water supply that may one day be the region’s largest, after Lake Cachuma: purified and recycled wastewater.

For the past 25 years, a small amount of wastewater from sinks, tubs and toilets has been treated and sprayed on the turf at golf courses, schools and parks in Santa Barbara and the Goleta Valley – fewer than 100 sites overall. It’s not suitable for drinking, but it keeps the grass green.

The rest of the South Coast wastewater stream – about 11 million gallons per day – is treated, piped offshore and dumped into the ocean. But why waste a supply that can be turned into drinking water? officials are asking now. Even after a wet winter, Cachuma is only half full. Future allocations from the lake will likely be significantly reduced because of siltation and mandatory downstream releases. And it could take 10 years to recharge the local groundwater basins, now at historical lows.

The South Coast – and much of California – has exceeded the limits of reservoirs and wells, the traditional supply options of the 20th century. Now, like Cinderella at the ball, recycled water is attracting a host of eager suitors.

“We’re chomping at the bit,” said Dave Davis, a Santa Barbara water commissioner. “The interest is as high as you could possibly believe.”

On Wednesday (NOTE: JUNE 7), even as operations began at the city’s new $70 million desalination plant, the city rushed to submit a last-minute bid on a $5 million property for a future wastewater purification plant nearby. The property measures 2.4 acres and is on the waterfront between South César Chávez and Quarantina streets.

“Recycled water has the potential to make up 50 percent of the city’s supply,” said Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara water resources manager. “We’re 10 years out, but it’s not too early to start to open people’s minds.”

A flurry of reports commissioned by South Coast water agencies during the past year shows that purified wastewater from Santa Barbara, Montecito and the Goleta and Carpinteria valleys could supply enough potable water for 80,000 residents, out of a total population of 207,000.

In the Goleta and Carpinteria valleys, preliminary plans for water recycling plants are already under review: the price tags would be $83 million and $21 million, respectively. The wastewater would be treated nearly to the quality of distilled water, injected into the groundwater basins and stored there for several months before being pumped into homes.

A Carpinteria Valley plant and a pilot project in the Goleta Valley could be up and running within three years and five years, respectively – if and when the communities decide to move forward, officials said.

“It’s probably the top priority,” said Robert McDonald, general manager of the Carpinteria Valley Water District. For years, he said, the district has been trying to sell half of the valley’s state water entitlement and invest in recycled water. During the recent severe drought, the state aqueduct delivered only 37 percent of entitlements yearly, on average. In 2014, deliveries dropped as low as 5 percent.

It would be cheaper for the Carpinteria Valley to purify wastewater to drinking water standards than to import state water or build a desalination plant, a recent report shows.

“We need a supply that is drought-resistant and local,” McDonald said. “State water is expensive and has lots of variability.”

At full capacity, reports show, a water recycling plant in the Carpinteria Valley would cover about one-quarter of customer demand. A Goleta Valley plant, together with continued production of non-potable water for irrigation, would cover 40 percent of demand.

“It’s a source that is already collected, right in our backyard,” said Dave Mattson, Goleta Water District assistant general manager. “We’re faced with the need to localize our long-term water supply sources so that we have control of them.”

Even the Montecito Water District, which has never endorsed the production of non-potable irrigation water in Montecito or allowed customers to tap into the city’s nearby supply, is applying for $75,000 in state funding for a study on water recycling.

“We are going after it, absolutely,” said Tobe Plough, a Montecito water board director. “To me, that’s where the future lies. What on earth are we doing, sending all this stuff to the ocean?”

Plough was elected to the board last fall along with Director Floyd Wicks. Their campaign mailers featured a glossy picture of a spacecraft with the words, “What does the International Space Station have that the Montecito Water District does not? The answer is recycled water.”

About 13 percent of municipal wastewater in California is recycled, studies show. Orange County is the undisputed leader, having built the world’s largest wastewater recycling plant in 2008 to replenish its vast groundwater basins with potable water. The giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is reviewing a $2.7 billion water recycling project. And in early May, the Monterey Peninsula broke ground on a $100 million project that will replenish its groundwater basins and treat farm runoff for agricultural irrigation.

Water officials avoid the phrase “toilet-to-tap”; they view it as misleading. In recycling plants, municipal wastewater is passed through micro-filters and reverse-osmosis membranes, then disinfected with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide: The end result is purer than tap water. For good measure, the water is allowed to filter through layers of rock in the underground basins for months before it goes into homes.

To help cities such as Santa Barbara that don’t have large groundwater basins, a bill in the state Legislature would set a 2021 deadline for the next frontier: a set of regulations for recycled water that can be pumped directly into reservoir treatment plants.

“Something that looked like it was many years away might be only a few years away,” said David Sedlak, a UC-Berkeley engineering professor who served on a state panel of experts that drew up guidelines for future regulations last fall. “That’s because of the droughts, plural. The whole Southwest is thinking about this.”

Orange County’s success is also a factor, Sedlak said, adding, “People feel comfortable with the technology.”

For Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, a Santa Barbara-based environmentalist group, it’s about time. Hauser co-founded the organization in 1998 with the slogan, “No More Ocean Dumping!” Early on, the group successfully pressured the Goleta Sanitary District to treat its wastewater to a higher standard before shipping it offshore.

On May 24, as a committee of the Goleta water board explored several options for recycled water, Hauser said, “Bravo! I want to commend the Goleta Water District for being one of the first to move forward in this county.”

Edo McGowan, a retired Montecito doctor and environmental advisor with the State Department in Africa, and a familiar figure at local water board meetings, is not so enthusiastic; he urges local agencies to “proceed with “extreme caution.” McGowan uses a sophisticated reverse osmosis system to purify the conventionally treated tap water in his home: he said he worries about antibiotic-resistant pathogens – superbugs that can make people sick.

“The water meets the state standards, but they were never designed to test for antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” McGowan said. “We don’t know what we’re drinking. I have no problem with the use of recycled water, as long as it’s done properly.”

The State Water Resources Control Board has said it is “very confident” in the safety of potable recycled water that is injected into groundwater basins, based on several decades of experience, monitoring and research on existing projects. The potential public health risk from exposure to pathogens in recycled water, whether it goes onto landscaping or into groundwater basins, is “very small,” the board says.

In bidding this week on the 2.4-acre property near Santa Barbara’s El Estero wastewater treatment plant and desalination plant, city officials said it was only suitable place left for a water recycling plant. The land was formerly owned by the city redevelopment agency and is being sold by an agency made up of city, county, school district and state representatives.

Santa Barbara and Montecito may someday share recycled water, even though they haven’t been able to agree on sharing desalinated water, officials said. Four of the Montecito Water District’s largest customers – the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Music Academy of the West, Biltmore hotel and the tropical estate of Ty Warner, the owner of the Biltmore – are within a stone’s throw of the Montecito Sanitary District and city pipes that carry non-potable irrigation water to the Santa Barbara Zoo and the Montecito Country Club golf course, a property within city limits.

The annual water use for the cemetery, Biltmore, music academy and Warner’s estate equals the indoor water use of more than 2,000 people, district data show. Three of these properties are among the district’s top 20 water users. In 2015, the Sanitary District proposed building a small wastewater treatment plant to supply non-potable irrigation water to interested customers, including the four large users in the neighborhood – but the water board rejected the idea.

Today, Plough said, the district is open to hooking up some of its customers with non-potable irrigation water in the short term. But long-term, he said, Montecito hopes to meet a quarter of its demand with potable recycled water. The district will look into producing a local supply and collaborating with neighboring districts, Plough said: “Everything’s on the table.”

And that’s progress, said Diane Gabriel, the Sanitary District general manager, adding, “Our community doesn’t really need drinking water, we need landscaping water.”

“Since before the drought, we’ve been saying, ‘Hey, our treated wastewater is a water source, it’s a water source!’ It’s a new day, and we’re excited about it.”


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