Wastewater Treatment Plant: SOS or SOL?

King Tides at Butterfly Beach. (Jan. 21, 2019) | Credit: Paul Wellman

Now that Santa Barbara’s new City Council has survived the ceremonial niceties of Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony — followed by cookies, small talk and punch — its members are bracing themselves for a cold, hard reality sandwich this coming Tuesday when it comes to the threat of sea-level rise. At this writing, the report is a grim shaggy-dog story with no punch line yet. Crafting one will be the work of the council in the months ahead.

In short, city planners are projecting a sea-level increase of 6.6 feet between now and 2100. If no action is taken to mitigate this, they reckon, 1,250 parcels will be at risk of serious damage. The proverbial rising tide may lift all boats, but not all waterfront areas are equally vulnerable to serious damage. The wastewater treatment plant, for example, will be rendered “permanently inoperable as currently designed,” the staff report states, when that 6.6 feet increase is achieved. When this happens, it would adversely affect the entire city, not just those areas more immediately impacted by rising water levels.

Likewise, the report notes that even a 2.5-foot increase in sea level will have serious impact on most harbor functions. “By 6.6 feet of sea-level rise,” the staff report added, “the harbor would be unusable without reconstruction.” Only somewhat less dramatically, a 2.5-foot increase could increase coastal bluff erosion by a factor of 40 percent; with a 6.6-foot increase, erosion’s toll would increase by 140 percent.

Next week, the council is slated only to get a briefing on a range of scenarios ranging from bad to worse to worst. In subsequent meetings, the council will deliberate on possible responses.

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