Beginning in 2016, when Montecito was under rationing and a group of affluent residents began funding a water board overhaul, election candidates pledged to bring water recycling to the community during the drought.
In three election cycles – in 2016, 2018 and 2020 – run twice as ‘your water safety team’, candidates have pledged ‘greater use of recycled wastewater for landscaping’ and pledged to end or update Montecito’s disposal of treated sewage through an ocean pipeline, a practice widely used throughout the South Coast.
Riding on a voter backlash against water rationing during the drought and backed by $256,000 in donations, they won nine of 10 district water and sanitation council seats.
Yet today, recycled water is still off the drawing board in the affluent community of one-acre lots, grand estates, and luxury golf courses.
“If I could start tomorrow I would, but 2023 would be a reasonable time frame,” said Floyd Wicks, a water board member who was elected in 2016 and re-elected in 2020. In 2016, his campaign flyers read: “What does the International Space Station have more than the Montecito Aquatic District? The answer is recycled water.
Now the Montecito Water and sanitary quarters are sharing the $440,000 cost of a water recycling study — the second such study in four years — to find out if their neighbors could help them treat the community’s sewage so they can be reused for irrigation or for consumption. They are investigating whether Montecito could inject its treated wastewater into the groundwater basin that underlies the Carpinteria Valley, or deliver it directly to Santa Barbara’s potable water reservoirs. Both options would be years away.
Montecito Councils have requested up to $150,000 in public funding to help cover part of the cost of the new study, which is being led by Carollo Engineers, a national company headquartered in Walnut Creek. It should be made public by the end of this year.
Shelf “Purple Pipe”
At 270 gallons of water per person per day, residential water usage in the Montecito Aquatic District, encompassing a population of 11,800 people in Montecito, Summerland and Toro Canyon, is among the highest in the state. Only about 15% of the district’s water supply is used indoors and ends up in sewers; 85% goes onto lawns and landscaping and cannot be recycled.
Historically, due to concerns about the cost of recycling and potential public health impacts, the district has never followed the lead of Santa Barbara or the Goleta Valley, larger communities that have begun recycling l non-drinking water through “purple pipes” to parks and golf courses. over 25 years ago.
In 2018, a $150,000 reclaimed water study 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 them through purple pipes to large commercial water customers, including the Birnam Wood Golf Clubthe Valley Club and the Santa Barbara Cemetery.
In 2019, taking the lead, the former health district board purchased a $140,000 expandable water recycling plant — the first in Montecito — and planned to begin irrigating test plots on the Santa Barbara Cemetery Lawn, directly across Channel Drive from the District Headquarters.
But after the 2020 elections, the new majority of the health district council shut down the recycling plant; only Director Gary Fuller, who ran against the Water Safety 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.
At a joint committee meeting in January, Woody Barrett, vice chairman of the health district board, asked if the water district would share the capital cost of the pilot plant. Ken Coates, vice-chairman of the water board, said no: “The water district opposed this project. The health district went ahead despite our opposition, so sorry, you have to eat that price.
“Big obstacles” to a potential partnership with Carpinteria
The two councils are now considering whether Montecito could ship its wastewater into the Carpinteria Valley through a pipeline on the north side of Highway 101. The treated wastewater would be injected into the valley’s large groundwater pond. There it would undergo months of natural filtration before being returned to Montecito as drinking water. The injection of recycled water into groundwater is known as “potable indirect reuse”.
Montecito’s underground pools 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 chairman Tobe Plow, who won elections alongside Wicks in 2016 and 2020. “It provides a more reliable source of water.”
Carpinteria Sanitary and Water Districts are halfway through the design of a $35 million advanced water treatment plant; it could be operational by the end of 2025. But officials say more studies are needed to determine if there is enough capacity in the valley’s underground basin to accommodate recycled water from Montecito.
“It was really Montecito who came up with all these ideas,” said Craig Murray, general manager of the Carpinteria Health District. “We want to help where we can, but some of our conversations have identified what we see as big obstacles. From our point of view, it doesn’t seem like a real project, in terms of cost.
A “hybrid solution” with Santa Barbara?
Alternatively, Montecito is exploring whether to ship its wastewater to Santa Barbara for treatment to non-potable standards and collect the recycled water through a purple pipe for irrigation.
The Montecito Water District has already entered into a 50-year partnership with the city for a $33 million city water supply. Within a few years, or so it is believed, Santa Barbara could be treating Montecito’s wastewater to drinking water standards and directing it directly to city reservoirs. But the State has not yet approved this water recycling system, called “direct drinking reuse”; Santa Barbara officials say it may not be available until 2035.
“It’s still kind of a schedule,” said Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager. “The more the state gets into it, the more problems and challenges it encounters.”
Montecito officials admit that some sort of purple pipe system might turn out to be the best option for Montecito right now, with or without Santa Barbara. In combination with future direct potable reuse, they say, this would be a “hybrid solution”.
“We might be able to do a shorter-term project with longer-term goals,” said Nick Turner, general manager of the water district.
Hillary Hauser, Executive Director of Heal the oceanan environmental group that advocates widespread use of recycled water, has long favored treating sewage to non-potable standards in the Montecito Health District for use at the cemetery and the Biltmore Hotel.
“They’re going around in circles with a huge amount of money spent on studies, making a big push for recycled drinking water,” she said. “Waiting for direct drinking 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, bushes, and palm trees. They could have done it a long time ago.
Click here to learn more about the decisions of the Montecito Sanitary and Water District Boards to fund a study to merge the two special districts.
— Melinda Burns is an investigative journalist with 40 years of experience in the fields of immigration, water, science and the environment. As a community service, she offers her reports to several local publications, at the same time, for free.