The Montecito Sanitary District, shown above, and the Montecito Water District have commissioned a $440,000 study on the best way to recycle the community's wastewater for irrigation or drinking. It is the second such study in four years. | Credit: Melinda Burns

Beginning in 2016, when Montecito was under rationing and a group of wealthy residents started funding a shakeup of the water board, the challengers running for office promised to bring water recycling to the community in the drought.

Over three election cycles — in 2016, 2018, and 2020 — running twice as “Your Water Security Team,” candidates promised “greater use of recycled wastewater for landscaping” and vowed to put an end to or upgrade the disposal of treated wastewater through an ocean pipeline, a practice widely in use throughout the South Coast and beyond. Riding a voter backlash against rationing, and backed by $256,000 in donations, they swept nine of 10 seats on the Water and Sanitary District boards.

During the 2018 campaign, the Water Security Team threatened to sue the Sanitary District. Three weeks before the election, someone filed an anonymous complaint against an incumbent on the district board, falsely accusing him of violating state conflict-of-interest laws. The claim was thrown out, but the incumbent, a retired executive who had had a career overseeing the development of water recycling systems, lost his seat.

Today, recycled water is still not on the drawing board in the affluent community of one-acre lots, large estates, and luxury golf courses.

For decades, the Montecito Water District has rejected the idea of delivering non-potable recycled water for irrigation to its largest customers. | Credit: Melinda Burns

“If I could start it tomorrow, I would, but 2023 would be a reasonable timeframe,” said Floyd Wicks, a water boardmember who won election in 2016 and reelection in 2020. Back in 2016, his campaign flyers read, “What does the International Space Station have that the Montecito Water District does not? The answer is recycled water.”

Now, the Montecito water and sanitary districts are splitting the $440,000 cost of a water recycling study — the second such study in four years — to find out whether their neighbors could help them treat the community’s wastewater supply so that it can be reused for irrigation or for drinking. They are exploring whether Montecito could inject its treated wastewater into the large groundwater basin that underlies the Carpinteria Valley groundwater basin or deliver it directly into Santa Barbara’s drinking water reservoirs. Both options would be years away.

Montecito’s potential supply of recycled water is not large, but if it were available today, it would amount to more than the community’s supply from the California Aqueduct this year, Wicks said.

“You can’t count on rainfall. You just can’t,” he said. “This new study expanded the possibilities of taking all the wastewater instead of just a portion and putting it all to beneficial use.”

The Montecito boards have applied for up to $150,000 in state funding to cover part of the cost of the new study, which is being conducted by Carollo Engineers, a national firm with headquarters in Walnut Creek, California. It is expected to be made public by the end of this year.

Shelving ‘Purple Pipe’

At 270 gallons of water per capita per day, the residential water use in the Montecito Water District, encompassing a population of 11,800 people in Montecito, Summerland, and Toro Canyon, is among the highest in the state. Only about 15 percent of the district’s water supply is used indoors and winds up in the sewers; 85 percent goes on lawns and landscaping and can’t be recycled.

Historically, because of concerns about the cost of recycling and the potential impacts on public health, the district never followed the example of Santa Barbara or the Goleta Valley, much larger communities that began recycling non-potable water through “purple pipes” more than 25 years ago. The water is used to irrigate the lawns and landscaping at parks, schools, and golf courses. Today, it costs about $2 million per mile to lay down purple pipe.

In 2018, a $150,000 study on recycled water for the Montecito Water District recommended that the community spend $16 million on a plant that could treat wastewater to a non-potable standard for irrigation and distribute it through purple pipes to big commercial water customers. These could include the Birnam Wood Golf Club and Valley Club golf resorts on East Valley Road and the Santa Barbara Cemetery, Four Seasons Biltmore, Music Academy of the West, and Rosewood Miramar Beach — customers nearer the Sanitary District headquarters on Monte Cristo Lane, the study said.

The Santa Barbara Cemetery, which is located across Channel Drive from the sanitary district headquarters, is one of the largest water customers in Montecito. | Credit: Melinda Burns

In 2019, taking the initiative, the former Sanitary District board purchased a $140,000 expandable water recycling plant — the first in Montecito — and planned to start irrigating test plots on the cemetery lawn, directly across Channel Drive from district headquarters. It was to be the first step of a modest $5 million project providing non-potable water to the entire cemetery by early 2021. 

But after the 2020 election, the new Sanitary District board majority shut down the recycling plant; only Director Gary Fuller, who ran against the Water Security Team, voted to keep it running. Now, two years later, the pilot project has been reactivated — not to water the cemetery, but to provide water quality data for the new recycling study. This February, the Water and Sanitary District boards voted to split the cost of running the plant for the next six months — between $22,000 and $40,000.

At a joint committee meeting in January, Woody Barrett, vice president of the Sanitary District board, asked if the water district also would share the capital cost of the pilot plant. No, said Ken Coates, the water board vice president: “The Water District opposed that project. The Sanitary District went ahead with it despite our opposition, so, sorry, you gotta eat that cost.”

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Carpinteria: ‘Big Hurdles’

The two boards are now looking into whether Montecito could ship its wastewater to the Carpinteria Valley through a pipeline on the north side of Highway 101. Under this scenario, Montecito Sanitary could treat the water first or it could be partially or fully treated at Carpinteria’s future recycling plant. Either way, the treated wastewater would be injected into the valley’s large groundwater basin. There, it would undergo months of natural filtration before it was delivered back to Montecito as drinking water. The groundwater injection of recycled water is known as “indirect potable reuse.”

Montecito’s underground basins have no useful storage space; they are small, and the water district shares them with 1,500 private wells.

“The trick is to find storage, if we can, on this side of the Santa Ynez Mountains,” said water board president Tobe Plough, who won election alongside Wicks in 2016 and 2020. “It provides a more reliable source of water.”

Wicks noted that the Carpinteria option would allow Montecito to “put all of the treated water below ground and bring it out in the summer when you need it for irrigation.”

Montecito residents use 270 gallons of water per capita per day, most of it on landscaping. | Credit: Melinda Burns

Carpinteria’s water and sanitary districts are midway through the design of a $35 million advanced water treatment plant; if state funding comes through, it could be in operation for indirect potable reuse by the end of 2025.

But officials say that more studies are needed to determine whether there’s enough capacity in the valley’s underground basin to accommodate Montecito’s recycled water and whether Carpinteria’s treatment plant could handle the extra supply of wastewater from Montecito, especially during heavy rains. Moreover, they say, it could take at least seven years to work out the route of a zig-zagging pipeline from Montecito to the valley.

“This has really been Montecito crafting all these ideas,” said Craig Murray, general manager of the Carpinteria Sanitary District. “We want to help where we can, but some of our conversations have identified what we see as big hurdles. From our vantage, it doesn’t appear to be a real project, in terms of the cost.”

A ‘Hybrid Solution’?

Alternatively, Montecito is looking into whether to ship its wastewater to Santa Barbara for treatment to non-potable standards and bring it back to Montecito through purple pipe for irrigation. On the south side of Highway 101, the city’s purple pipe ends at the Santa Barbara Zoo; on the north side, it ends at the Montecito Country Club. Both locations are within two miles of the Montecito Sanitary District.

The Montecito Water District is already in a 50-year partnership with the city for a $33 million supply of city water, enough to supply about 40 percent of Montecito’s demand. City water started flowing out of Montecito faucets this January 1.

Years from now, or so the thinking goes, Santa Barbara could treat Montecito’s wastewater to drinking-water standards and deliver it directly into city reservoirs. But the state has yet to approve this system of water recycling, called “direct potable reuse”; Santa Barbara officials say it may not be available until 2035.

“That is still kind of the timeline,” said Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager. “The more the state gets into it, the more issues and challenges they come across.”

Either direct or indirect potable reuse would provide more efficient use of Montecito’s wastewater than purple pipe because more of it could be recycled. There is no demand for non-potable water for irrigation when it’s raining, and that means more treated wastewater gets shipped offshore through a pipeline on the sea floor.

After the 2020 elections, the new sanitary district board majority shut down a small water recycling plant, the first in Montecito. It was reactivated this winter to provide water quality data for the recycling study. | Credit: Courtesy

Montecito officials concede that some kind of purple pipe system could wind up as the best option for the community for now, with or without Santa Barbara. In combination with future direct potable reuse, they say, this would be a “hybrid solution.”

Montecito could treat its own wastewater to non-potable standards and deliver it to the golf courses through purple pipes until direct potable reuse is allowed, said Nick Turner, the water district general manager. The cemetery and other big users nearer the sanitary district don’t use nearly as much water as the golf courses, he said.

Ten to 15 years from now, Turner said, Montecito could treat its wastewater to drinking-water standards, convert the purple pipes to water mains, and deliver potable recycled water directly into the underground tanks at the water district’s Bella Vista treatment plant.

“We might be able to do a shorter-term project with longer-term goals in mind,” Turner said.

Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, an environmental group that advocates for more widespread use of recycled water, has long favored treating wastewater to non-potable standards at the Montecito Sanitary District for use at the cemetery and the Biltmore.

“They are going in circles with an immense amount of money spent on studies, making a big push for potable recycled water,” she said. “Waiting for direct potable reuse is like Waiting for Godot. There’s nothing wrong with purple pipes if you’re saving potable water by using non-potable water on your grass and your bushes and palms. They could have done this a long time ago.”

Montecito Water Part 1″ was posted here on April 7. Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience covering immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

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