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Building Rivers: Santa Monica and Other Cities Increase Water Self-Reliance

Barry Nelson

Posted March 28, 2011

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Building Rivers Blog Series
  • Santa Monica and Other Cities Increase Water Self-Reliance

It’s a long tradition in California.  First, newly founded communities tap into local streams.  As they continue to grow, they run out of local water.  In response, leaders look farther afield to find a river to provide an imported supply.  The pattern isn’t surprising, as most Californians live in relatively dry places.  We’ve seen it repeated in San Francisco, the East Bay, Silicon Valley, Marin County, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities across the state.  The result is a dizzyingly complex system of dams and aqueducts that allows San Diegans to drink rain that falls on the Oregon border and snow that falls in Rocky Mountain National Park.  But now there’s a new chapter to the story. 

Across the state, sources of imported water have hit limits.  In a remarkable turn of events, particularly in Southern California, communities are now returning to local sources to reduce their reliance on imported water.  The most recent example of this trend is in Santa Monica, which announced last month that they have reduced – from 85 percent to 33 percent - the city’s water imported supply. 

This dramatic reduction was made possible by a groundwater clean-up project that allows Santa Monica to tap into a local groundwater source that had been lost because of contamination.  MTBE, a gasoline additive, had leaked from underground storage tanks into seven of the City’s eleven well fields.  Funded by a settlement with an oil company, the new groundwater treatment plant uses reverse osmosis and other treatment techniques to produce 8 million gallons a day – a full 2/3 of the city’s supply. 

Santa Monica Water Treatment Plant.jpg

The Santa Monica Water Treatment Plant (-Photo courtesy of the City of Santa Monica)

So why did the City make this investment?  Here’s what City officials said at the February 24 event dedicating the new plant:

Mayor Richard Bloom told the large crowd “today does mark the full restoration of the city’s groundwater and the reduction of the city’s use of expensive imported water from Northern California and the Colorado River. Given the risks and uncertainty of the California water supply the only reasonable response for Santa Monica is to reduce its use of an imported water supply. We were one of the first victims of the MTBE pollution. We will now set the standard with this facility for MTBE cleanup.”

On March 8, the Santa Monica City Council unanimously adopted a resolution directing city staff to prepare a plan to make the city completely self sufficient by 2020.  The plan will include investments in conservation, green infrastructure and stormwater treatment. 

According to City Councilman Terry O’Day, “becoming self-sufficient makes economic sense for the City.  Local water costs 40 percent less than imported supplies and investments in local supplies offer other economic benefits.  Cleaning up stormwater means cleaner beaches – an engine of our local economy.  Capturing stormwater will recharge our groundwater, and our neighborhoods love the idea of pulling out asphalt and putting in landscaped rain gardens.  These investments will give us a greener water supply and will literally make us a greener city.”

This project is one of the reasons I’ve called this series “building rivers”.  For an investment of $60 million, Santa Monica has built a water supply that will produce 9,000 acre-feet per year – roughly equal to half of the supply that the City of Los Angeles diverts from the Mono Lake Basin in the Eastern Sierra. 

Santa Monica’s leaders deserve credit for their foresight and initiative.  But they aren’t alone.  The San Diego County Water Authority has reduced reliance on imported water from MWD -- from 578,000 acre-feet in 1991 to 286,000 acre-feet in 2011.

SDCWA Water Supply DiversificationLong Beach has also reduced its reliance on imported water. 

Long Beach Local Projects Pie Chart.jpgThe Water Replenishment District of Southern California has done the same. 

Water Replenishment District Pie Charts.jpgAnd so has the West Basin Municipal Water District. 

WBMWD Water Supply PortfolioI know what you’re thinking.  Our water wars aren’t supposed to follow this script.  In California, environmentalists are supposed to fight with urban water agencies that want to take more water from the Bay-Delta.  Well, environmentalists do think that water agencies should be less reliant on the Delta.  As of the end of 2009, state law includes a policy calling for water agencies to reduce reliance on water from the Delta.  What’s so interesting here is that these five communities agree – and they’re making dramatic progress to increase their water self-reliance.  

Whether you’re an urban resident concerned about your water supply and your bills, a hydrologist worried about the impacts of climate change, an environmentalist working to protect the Bay-Delta or a commercial salmon fisherman hoping that your industry will survive, this is an encouraging trend.  There’s a lot we can do to build on this progress.  I know it’s not as media-worthy as an old fashioned water war.  But I’m sure that, over time, we’ll get used to all of this agreement and cooperation. 

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