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Santa Monica Prepares to Eliminate Water Imports, Drought-Proof Supply

The Southern California city is building a number of big projects with the goal of becoming completely self-sufficient in water by 2020, according to Dean Kubani, its chief sustainability officer.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Santa Monica’s Urban Runoff Recycling Facility treats dry stormwater that used to go directly into Santa Monica Bay through storm drains, taking with it pollutants such as litter, oil and animal waste. The recycled water is used by the city for irrigation and some public toilet systems for flush.Ted Soqui, Corbis via Getting Images

The worst drought in California’s history ended in April when Gov. Jerry Brown declared it officially over after an especially wet winter. But one city isn’t backing down on water conservation.

Santa Monica, a progressive town on the Southern California coast, is proceeding as if the drought were still under way, and it still requires residents to meet water conservation targets.

It has a rich menu of financial incentives to encourage its citizens and businesses to remove thirsty lawns and install frugal appliances.

It is also pushing ahead with an ambitious program to end its dependency on imported water by 2020. This includes recycling wastewater and building massive underground cisterns to capture storm runoff.

A big reason for these efforts is climate change; city leaders are heeding the signs that it may result in longer and more frequent droughts.

To learn more, Water Deeply recently talked to Dean Kubani, Santa Monica’s chief sustainability officer, who works within the city’s public works department.

Water Deeply: How has water conservation worked in Santa Monica?

Dean Kubani: We, like other cities, very aggressively promoted water conservation during the drought, and we imposed a water-use allowance for residents and businesses. People could incur penalties for exceeding their allowance. We were doing enforcement of that all throughout the drought. We were really focused on the most egregious water wasters. That was very effective at getting people to cut their water use.

In addition to that, we provided very generous incentives for people, primarily on the residential side, through landscape rebates. People could get up to $6,000 for pulling out their lawns and replacing them with drought-tolerant landscaping. We had lots of takers on that. The upshot was we were able to cut citywide water use by 20 percent during the drought.

So when the state declared the drought was over, Santa Monica chose to keep the water-use allowances, the incentives and everything in place and move forward. And we’re still at 20 percent below our baseline water use, which was set in 2013. We’ve kept it down, whereas a lot of communities have seen their water use rebound.

Water Deeply: Why is Santa Monica still conserving water?

Kubani: The reason our city council chose to do that was that we have a water self-sufficiency goal. By the year 2020, our council has set this goal of completely coming off imported water – meaning that we would provide all of our water resources locally and stop using imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California, which are currently supplied by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

That was something the council was suggesting back in about 2012; it was really proposed in light of climate change and the anticipated impacts, which we know are longer and deeper droughts and more frequent droughts, and also reduced snowpack in the Sierras.

Water Deeply: What is the city doing to boost its local water resources?

Kubani: Santa Monica has its own groundwater wells, and we’ve purchased some land and started pumping water back into the aquifer. Those local wells provide approximately 70 percent of our water right now, and we’re importing about 30 percent. So, in addition to reducing overall water demand through our conservation efforts, we are developing other local water resources.

We have just started the process of constructing about 6 million gallons of capacity in underground cisterns to capture rainwater. And we will be running that through existing treatment plants and reusing that to offset potable water use, for things like flushing toilets and irrigation.

We are also beginning work on a project to build an underground treatment plant that will tap into our sewer line and pull out the water from it and treat it to, essentially, drinking-water standards. Then we will be able to reinject that into our groundwater table.

Water Deeply: The city also adopted a water neutrality ordinance. What’s that?

Kubani: One of other things that our council did earlier this year was adopt a water neutrality ordinance. What that does is, for all new development and major remodel projects, it requires that the development only use the existing amount of water that’s being used on site. So, for instance, if there’s a two-story office building that’s using, say, 100 gallons a day, and somebody decided they wanted to build a 10-story housing development on that same site, they could only use that allowance of 100 gallons a day. If the new development was going to use more than that, then they have to offset the additional projected demand by replacing inefficient toilets in existing buildings elsewhere in Santa Monica – or some other conservation method. It has to be a permanent offset.

Water Deeply: Is the city still enforcing water waste regulations?

Kubani: The way we’ve approached enforcement, we tend to look at different sectors in the community: residential and commercial. We look at the 100 top water users that are exceeding their allowances, and then we will go out and contact them. Often what we find is that people don’t realize they were wasting water. Many times, we find they have a leak in their irrigation system that has been there for a long time. And we are able to set them up with different rebate programs, replace fixtures and change out landscapes.

For the most part, people have been very supportive. I think, with all the press [coverage] around the drought, it definitely helps people to take that big step of retrofitting their landscape or making changes in the way they use water.

Water Deeply: What changes have you noticed since the drought was declared over?

Kubani: Since it went away, we noticed a little bit of a bump in water use, briefly. So we focused our outreach to let folks know Santa Monica still has potential penalties and incentives. And that little bump dropped back down again.

People understand the need to continue. We have a lot of communication around climate change here in Santa Monica. We’re working on a climate action plan that’s very aggressive. We’re trying to meet a carbon neutrality goal by 2050. It’s a changing world, and we are going to have more frequent droughts, and it is prudent to plan for the future.

Water Deeply: Is the city on track to meet the water self-sufficiency goal in 2020?

Kubani: We are pretty close. My guess is it may be 2021 when we get there. It’s a matter of some of the projects we’re working on. They need to really go according to timeline, and some of the funding for those projects might hold them up a little bit. If we don’t make it by the end of 2020, it’s going to be very close to that.

Water Deeply: Tell me about the system of cisterns the city is building.

Kubani: We’ve already broken ground on the first one, a 1.6 million-gallon cistern going beneath a parking lot just north of the Santa Monica pier. It’s a series of open concrete boxes that are several feet underground. It’s going to capture all the runoff from one part of Santa Monica – basically the downtown area – whenever it rains. We’re linking that cistern up to an existing treatment plant. That plant currently captures rainwater runoff from our storm drain system. And we treat that water and reuse it right now.

Because we’ve been very effective at reducing the amount of runoff, the amount of water going to that treatment plant right now has been decreasing for a number of years. So we’re repurposing that treatment plant to take the water from this new cistern and treat it to essentially a drinking-water standard. After a rainstorm, we can use that and generate about 500,000 gallons a day of treated water that we can use to offset potable water use.

The other two cisterns will total a little over 4 million gallons. Both will be hooked up to our water treatment system so we’ll be able to treat and reuse that water.

Water Deeply: Santa Monica is a fairly wealthy and progressive city. How doable is all this for other communities?

Kubani: I think all of this stuff is doable; we’re not coming up with any new fancy technologies or anything like that.

It’s more about political will and understanding the realities of climate change and how it’s impacting us. I really like to think, in Santa Monica, we’re planning for the future. So when the next drought comes along, we’re going to see much less impact on our community. Even though we may have future droughts, were going to be able to provide water for our residents and businesses in the long term. 

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