SMa.rt column: When the water runs out

What happens when a city runs out of water? You’ve heard of the torture suffered by Central Valley communities that ran out of water, but we recently had an example of a nearby affluent California coastal community running out of water. In 2014, Montecito’s 14,000 residents simply ran out of water during a punishing drought. Their local wells and reservoirs dried up, and with no access to the equally heavily used California aqueduct system, they faced catastrophic failure. They ordered water rationing, a draconian 30% reduction in water use that was enforced with fines, stopped issuing building permits, and banned new pools and spas or replenishing existing ones with city water. This is where history for Santa Monica becomes educational.

Montecito residents responded appropriately with a staggering 48% water reduction as lawns turned yellow, swimming pools evaporated, and $ 4 million in fines were fined from scofflaws with 400 shutdown notices to repeat offenders. Residents showered on the Y and took their laundry to the public laundromats, essentially letting go of their beloved landscaping. Oprah halved her annual water bill of $ 125,000 by using her own wells, conserving water, and transporting water (see Politico Magazine 8/24/14).

Deviating behavior occurred

But there were also deviant behaviors. Once the construction freeze went into effect, a black market for water permits developed as owners of underdeveloped parcels sold their water rights. As a result, certain properties could no longer be built because they had sold their water access.

Likewise, wealthier residents began paying tankers to import water at exorbitant prices, and residents began drilling their own wells to further lower their own city’s vulnerable water table. Some of the tankers were found to steal water from hydrants, lakes and adjacent towns, sparking a water war fueled by the wealth of this unique town. Eventually, 5-10% of users chose to pay the fines instead of meeting rationing goals. In the somewhat parallel case of Santa Monica, about 75% of developers choose to pay the cost if given the choice to adhere to our water neutrality plan (you cannot use more water on a new project than was originally used on that site) . additional fee instead of trying to adhere to the site’s original water usage restrictions.

Of course, Montecito’s situation was unstable and untenable, but fortunately the city managed to stumble through. The needed scapegoat was found and in 2016-2018 the local water board was voted out and replaced with a new body that signed a deal in 2020 to get 1,430 acres feet (AF), or 40% of the needs of Montecito of Santa Barbara buy desalination plant. For comparison, Santa Monica’s water consumption in 2020 is about 10,500 AF, or 7 times that of Montecito’s desalinated water. This facility was mothballed because it was too expensive to operate, is now being reactivated and Montecito’s costly deal will run for half a century from 2022 to 2072. The facility cost $ 72 million to build and Montecito will be $ 33 million (46%), or an initial $ 2,894 per year for each of the typical 11,400 accounts, triggering an initial 20% increase in the water rate.

A Faustian bargain

In short, a wealthy city can try to buy itself out of a water crisis if it has a neighboring city that has already made the heavy investment in a desalination plant. Note, however, that desalination is not “free”. It usually costs about twice the cost of groundwater and surface water, uses an incredible amount of energy (and space if the power comes from adjacent photovoltaic panels), and changes the biology of local waters by sucking in all kinds of small marine life and excreting a poisonous salty one Exhaust. Desalination is a Faustian bargain because of its significant financial and environmental costs.

Here in Santa Monica we are faced with a zero-sum water feature similar to that shown in the city’s Urban Water Masterplan 2021. In 2025, Santa Monica’s available water sources are optimistically projected:

10,650 AF – Groundwater well

7,406 AF – Imported water from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD)

560 AF – Recycled rain / brackish water

18,626 AF – seemingly comfortable overall

However, there are several risks that call this rosy scenario into question:

  1. Santa Monica planners typically use a 5 year horizon to assess adequacy The mantra we hear is that given the conditions we have, we have no problem. But since global warming is a long-term, almost geological trend, five years is a barely measurable start. In addition, the community has lived with the effects of development for decades. Thus, long-term supply and demand problems are dealt with with an extremely short-term perspective.
  1. Increasing demand from the RHNA-driven population of 17,800 (19%) is increasing. Sacramento’s unsustainable demand that Santa Monica allow 8,895 new units by 2029 (see graph above for how population and water use are closely related). The projected increase in water use in 2030 is set to rise to around 13,442 AF. This is already around 6.8% more than what is available from our wells (5181 AF) plus MWD (7406AF) in a typical drought year (12,587 AF). We were promised water neutrality by 2020, then by 2023, and now Sacramento has turned it into a hopeless mirage. This is our first red warning light.
  1. Can’t we just pump more water? Possibly yes, as our total pool capacity is still likely to be underutilized, but unfortunately our actual well production will continue to decline so we will need to drill new wells and filter them more efficiently. The unknown is, at what point is our pelvis emptying faster than it can recharge? Our total available groundwater basin projections are just that, an informed estimate. Pool capacity is an inaccurate science: while the previous maximum range was 15,290 AF-19,700 AF, the new sustainable pool limits are now estimated at 11,800 AF-14,725 AF (which also assumes we still have enough extra storm or gray water to to be able to continue injecting to charge our aquifer). Note that this maximum is only just under 9.5% above the 13,442 AF projected for 2030, but the minimum is 12% below. This tiny margin means that we cannot realistically achieve water independence with our wells alone and are always dependent on MWD backup. This is blinking red light # 2
  1. But MWD is not a long-term stable water supplier. Forecasts suggest that the Colorado River’s water supply, which MWD relies on, will be cut in half over the next few decades. The exact rate of decay of this water source will depend on how quickly global warming dries up its seven-state watershed. If Santa Monica’s MWD supplies were halved during a year of drought, we would expect them to be at 8,884 AF (5,181 AF wells + 3,703 MWD) or 34% below our nominal 2030 13,442 AF needs. This would require Montecito-style rationing and heroism with the accompanying civil revolt. Flashing light # 3.
  1. Here comes the competition. Everything is influenced by global warming and regionally the 3 other cities (Beverly Hills Culver City and Los Angeles City) as well as LA County share our groundwater basin. When MWD falters, they will want our “cheap water” and nothing can stop them from drilling and cleaning as we do. Our neighbor becomes our competitor. In short, we will have our own water war, just like Montecito. This will potentially increase the subsidence of our water table below rechargeable levels, not to mention the possibility of saltwater ingress from the ocean. Our entire dashboard is now illuminated.

With so many visible water hazard signs and so little prudent margin of error, we need to slow down construction, save more, and find more water sources. Ideally, all three should be considered. If we don’t, nature will just turn us off: she’s tired of us ignoring her repeated warnings. Note that the Santa Monicans use over 100 gallons per day while the Australians (a very water conscious nation) use about 85 gallons per day. So the city’s conservation programs have some room for improvement, but this is limited. In other words, we will not be able to maintain our path to sustainability: we already need new water sources today.

There are two obvious sources of water. First partially treated wastewater can be used in double-piped buildings and parts of the city that have a gray water system to feed landscaping, parks, etc. The city is already doing this with the construction of the SWIP (Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project) door to the courthouse. This is essentially a sewage and rainwater collection and partial treatment plant that should create a certain margin of safety and should give us a little more time to address the larger supply problem. Second, with improved technology (the Santa Barbara desalination plant is 30 years old), seawater could be desalinated to reduce its environmental costs. This would require several acres of land and could be built alone or in conjunction with other cities.

After all, are there discussions about what is most effective, cost-effective and ecological, a sewage treatment plant that cleans according to drinking standards, or a desalination plant that does the same? All options need to be explored as our water is disappearing quickly. But all scenarios involve the allocation of land (in the right place) and money, lots of it. Our water bills will already double in the next 5 years. With each of these options taking time to develop, finance, and build, and as we face the trauma of a Montecito situation in the immediate future, likely within the next decade, we must make these important decisions today:

Where would you like to set up the desalination plant in a fully developed city?

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi for SMart Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect, Building and Fire Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA, Planning Commissioner,

Marc Verville MBA, CPA (inactive), Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.

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