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La Casa de Maria Retreat Center Responds to Drought with Water Stewardship Project

From left, La Casa de Maria Retreat Center employee Santiago Mendoza, consultant Daniel Wilson and his assistant, Timothy Kershaw, use GPS equipment to create a resource map of the Montecito property. Click to view larger
From left, La Casa de Maria Retreat Center employee Santiago Mendoza, consultant Daniel Wilson and his assistant, Timothy Kershaw, use GPS equipment to create a resource map of the Montecito property. (La Casa de Maria Retreat Center photo)

As the statewide drought deepened last summer, La Casa de Maria Retreat Center faced a serious challenge.

Steve Jacobsen
Steve Jacobsen

Our local water district had instituted a stringent water conservation plan for our property at 800 El Bosque Road in Montecito. We were given a strict monthly allotment of water. If we exceeded it for a short period of time, we would face heavy fines. If we continued to go over our allotment, a flow restrictor would be installed. And if we continued to draw beyond our limit, all water to the property would be shut down.

Imagine telling 150 guests there would be no water available during their stay for showers or toilets.

Imagine watching 26 acres of carefully tended gardens and grounds die of thirst.

Our first response was to try to do what many of our neighbors were doing — pay up to $150,000 to drill a well. We began preparing a grant request from a local foundation to help pay the cost. We consulted with several experts, including a highly respected hydrogeologist. The expert concluded that La Casa is built over a shale formation, and the chance of finding water was close to nil.

We discussed our options, and decided to try another approach. We asked a local water stewardship expert, Daniel Wilson, to come for a tour to see if there were ways we could improve the use of the water that does come to us, either by rainfall or municipal water.

As he hiked across our property, he saw one opportunity after another. We could install submeters at key locations in our water lines to be able to track usage more accurately, which would in turn alert us to any leaks. We could obtain large storage cisterns and reconfigure the gutters on the roofs of the larger buildings to capture and store rainwater.

We could alter some of the flow patterns on the grounds of the property, so water would be directed away from drains and toward gardens and groves that could absorb and retain it. We could install systems to capture and reuse the “gray water” from our kitchen, so it could be used more than one time.

The list of ways we could save was a long and exciting one, and continues to grow.

We rewrote our grant application, shifting the purpose to conservation and stewardship from well-drilling, and we ended up receiving $30,000 to help us in the early stages.

Wilson also pointed out that keeping water on our property and using it on our land would benefit the adjacent stream, which in turn would increase the chance that steelhead trout could return. This, he said, would be of interest to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which could lead to some state grant funding.

A few weeks later, we spent the afternoon with Wilson, a water usage attorney from San Francisco, a state DFW representative, and a grants consultant with extensive experience in obtaining state funding for water projects such as ours. They all were very impressed with who we are, what we are doing and the potential we have to be a facility-wide model for water conservation and stewardship.

This would not only benefit La Casa directly, but by becoming an educational demonstration project, the 12,000 people who come through here every year could be informed and inspired about how their homes and workplaces could also save, reuse and redirect water.

We are still in our early stages, but we are excited about how this story has unfolded. A comprehensive water stewardship program would not only allow us to be more efficient, it would also be a fulfillment of one of our key mission goals — to help renew and care for the earth.

Click here for more information about La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, or call 805.969.5031.

— Steve Jacobsen is co-director of La Casa de Maria Retreat Center.

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