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Santa Barbara’s Water Has a Rich History, a Complex Future

Despite modern science and technology, basic challenges of delivery and storage transcend eras

Mission Dam, designed by the Santa Barbara Mission’s Franciscan friars and built by Coastal Chumash in 1807, was taken out of service after a series of severe floods along Mission Creek in 1913-14.

Mission Dam, designed by the Santa Barbara Mission’s Franciscan friars and built by Coastal Chumash in 1807, was taken out of service after a series of severe floods along Mission Creek in 1913-14.  (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

By Ben Preston, Noozhawk Staff Writer |

In Santa Barbara, European civilization planted its roots with the Mission, and not surprisingly, the Mission figured in the community’s first large-scale development of water resources.

Today, a hike up Mission Creek from the Mission’s basilica yields a treasure trove of mostly intact — albeit nonfunctioning — water infrastructure built by the Franciscan padres. Near the Mission’s gardens, there’s the Lower Reservoir, a diversion of Mission Creek (then called Pedregosa Creek) that supplied water to homes and agriculture around the Mission. Farther upstream, the padres, using Chumash labor, built Mission Dam, which at the time was said to have held a reservoir about 20 feet deep and 100 yards long. Although the reservoir, amid what is today the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, has long since silted in, the 110-foot wide, 23-foot high (on the downstream side), 18-foot thick dam still stands, and is regularly traversed by the garden’s visitors.

Rebecca Bjork, Santa Barbara's water resources manager, at the city's Cater Water Treatment Plant on San Roque Road. The plant, although not intended to be a firefighting resource, played a critical role in last year's Jesusita Fire. As the wildfire raged in the foothills around it, Bjork says,
Rebecca Bjork, Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, at the city’s Cater Water Treatment Plant on San Roque Road. The plant, although not intended to be a firefighting resource, played a critical role in last year’s Jesusita Fire. As the wildfire raged in the foothills around it, Bjork says, “We were cranking water through the plant as fast as it would go. If it wasn’t for Cater, we would’ve lost San Roque.” (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

By 1920 — Gibraltar Dam and the Mission Tunnel having just been completed — the South Coast was, for the first time, connected to the Santa Ynez River watershed on the other side of the coastal mountain range. While Gibraltar Reservoir continues to deliver an average of about 1,100 acre-feet of water to the South Coast annually — making it a major part of the city of Santa Barbara’s water supply portfolio — a huge growth in population over the past 80 years, as well as a constant battle against silt, have caused the city to look to other sources for its water.

Since the 1950s, Santa Barbara has been a 36 percent stakeholder in the Cachuma Project, receiving water deliveries from Lake Cachuma — a much larger reservoir downstream — as well as the State Water Project to a more limited extent.

While the picturesque forest clearing surrounding Mission Dam was once the heart of Santa Barbara’s water-delivery system, the focal point of the city’s water operations today is the Cater Water Treatment Plant, 1150 San Roque Road. Located atop a foothill mesa above San Roque, Cater provides the sort of state-of-the-art facility that has become the standard of water agencies everywhere. From the scores of filtration tanks to the digital readouts in the control room, science is king as the city’s water resources staff busily attend to the task of keeping ahead of federal water-quality regulations while simultaneously ensuring enough water is in the pipes to keep Santa Barbara’s taps running without interruption.

Fires and the Future of Water Treatment

As with other South Coast water agencies, Santa Barbara has been involved in the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board’s struggle to update and restore parts of the region’s water supply system. Both Rebecca Bjork, the city’s water resources manager, and COMB representative Das Williams, who is also on the City council, have been strong proponents of the list of projects proposed by COMB’s engineering consultant, AECOM.

“The COMB issues have been very time-consuming, and they’re very important, but they’re not the whole of what we’re doing,” said Bjork, pointing to a host of improvement projects that the city has planned for its own water distribution system. The 2007 Zaca Fire — the second largest in modern California history — burned more than 240,000 acres of wildland, much of it in the Upper Santa Ynez River’s watershed. It wasn’t long before soot-laden silt began to make its way through the river’s tributaries into the river itself, and eventually into Gibraltar Reservoir.

Aside from the higher than normal silt content caused by watershed terrain that had been denuded by fire, the ash that ended up in the reservoir as a result contained remnants of organic material that, when it bonded with chlorine disinfectant formed compounds found to be carcinogenic over time — trihalomethane and haloacetic acid. The unexpected contamination cost the agency nearly $3 million, a 10 percent budget increase.

“It’s going to take about $20 million for Santa Barbara to meet new federal standards targeting disinfectant products,” said Bjork, adding that the post-Zaca challenges the agency faced were compounded last May when the Jesusita Fire ravaged the area surrounding Cater. Suddenly, ash began to fall into Lauro Reservoir, too.

While disinfectant byproduct problems have been addressed by using ozone injection and other advanced treatment methods to make the water as pure as possible, Bjork said that with the Jesusita Fire, the city’s water system and the nearby residences had had a close shave.

“Cater is a 37 million-gallon-a-day plant,” she said. “During the Jesusita Fire, we were cranking water through the plant as fast as it would go. If it wasn’t for Cater, we would’ve lost San Roque.

“Our system is not designed, built or maintained to fight wildfires. We’ve been fortunate, but it would be infeasible to have a system like that,” she added, explaining that, normally, water demand is much too low to justify the large diameter pipes needed to support a fire suppression-oriented system. Because high volumes of water would not be flowing through large pipes, not enough would move through the pipes on a regular basis, essentially causing pockets of stale water to lower water quality.

“We want that water to go through as quickly as possible,” she said.

Addressing Supply

Along with Gibraltar, Lauro and the now underground Sheffield Reservoir, the city of Santa Barbara also has two groundwater basins available for water storage.

“Groundwater is a very important part of our water supply — it’s our only local source of water,” said Bjork, pointing out that water levels in the groundwater basins have to be carefully managed to prevent saltwater intrusion, which can occur if too much water is extracted from a groundwater well.

“It takes a lot longer to push (saltwater) out (of the basins) than it does for it to seep in.”

For example, recent groundwater analysis in Oceano, in San Luis Obispo County, showed that groundwater wells had been sufficiently depleted to cause concern about saltwater intruding into the community’s drinking water supply.

Santa Barbara has two groundwater basins — one in the foothills near San Roque, the other downtown — and the city is currently in the process of a $4 million well restoration. It took a while to get the necessary permits together — the project has been in the works for nearly 10 years, said city water treatment superintendent Susan Thomson — but the city secured a subsidized, long-term loan to pay for it.

Susan Thomson, Santa Barbara's water treatment superintendent, explains the city's testing process for biological contaminants. The city self-tests its water to ensure federal and state compliance in its state-certified lab.
Susan Thomson, Santa Barbara’s water treatment superintendent, explains the city’s testing process for biological contaminants. The city self-tests its water to ensure federal and state compliance in its state-certified lab. (Ben Preston / Noozhawk photo)

“Sometimes, wells have to be abandoned,” said Thomson, noting that if geologic conditions deteriorate over time, it’s necessary to drill a new well. “That can cost $5 million.”

Furthermore, at a time when environmental groups are increasingly skeptical of dams as a means of water storage, groundwater wells are what state and federal water authorities are looking to as a possible alternative for some aboveground reservoirs, as well as a way in which to augment water supplies.

Fresh Pipes

Among the four South Coast member units of COMB, Santa Barbara shoulders about 36 percent of the debt from the original Cachuma Project. If the $9 million second-barrel project is approved next week, the city will be responsible for that percentage, as well as a third of the share that the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s Board of Directors — responding to customers angry over high water rates — voted last fall not to assume. Several other repairs to the South Coast Conduit, the spine of the region’s water infrastructure, have been suggested by COMB’s engineering consultant, including a $3 million repair of a section of the South Coast Conduit crossing Mission Creek.

But the city also has to keep up with maintenance on its own vast network of pipes and valves.

“It’s expensive to operate water systems,” Thomson said. “We try to replace about 1 percent of the (city’s) pipeline every year, and when you consider that we’re trying to replace about three miles per year, it adds up.”

Light at the End of the Tunnel

Although the city’s water agency has a lot on its plate in terms of future challenges, it has a lot to work with as well. In the wake of quagga and zebra mussel contamination in other areas’ water supplies, regional water managers — very careful to check the hull of every boat that enters Lake Cachuma — have noted with relief Santa Barbara County’s relative isolation from water systems in other parts of California (it takes a massive amount of chemical disinfectants and a correspondinly large sum of money to treat a mussel infestation).

Although Bjork and other city administrators have said they have no plans to use it, the city has an ace up its sleeve in the form of a mothballed desalination plant. Built in the 1990s in response to an extreme multiyear drought a few years earlier, the Charles Meyer Desalination Facility, 525 E. Yanonali St., was never fired up due to its hefty operating cost and unknown environmental impacts.

The city’s water agency, along with other water management agencies around California, are required to meet new federal treatment standards by 2012. Along with the list of other improvements and repairs to be made, Bjork and her team have spread the cost over a 10-year period.

“Rates will be raised gradually (over that period) to keep up with inflation and capital projects,” said Bjork, adding wistfully that the water district in which she lives, La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., which acquires State Water delivered through the city’s pipes, charges a much higher rate for residential water.

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).




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» on 03.18.10 @ 02:41 PM

Just a small correction.  The desal plant was actually ‘fired up’ for 3 months after its completion as a test.  Very few customer complains.  Thirsty

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