Stacks of three-stage Reverse Osmosis filters fill the (RO) Filtration room at the Santa Monica Water Treatment Center on Wilshire Boulevard. The (RO) filtration system is thought to be one of the most important parts of the entire water management system, removing harmful chemicals and naturally occurring minerals. (photo by Brandon Wise)

CITY HALL — Santa Monica seems to have a plan for everything, from bike paths to land use, and at its meeting Tuesday, the City Council approved the process for one more — a plan to make Santa Monica completely self-sufficient in water supply by 2020.

“I have to present a plan to make a plan,” joked Gil Borboa, water resources manager for Santa Monica, at the meeting.

It’s not only a plan, it’s an ambitious one.

At present, Santa Monicans demand 13,200 acre-feet of water a year, or approximately 130 gallons per capita.

The three wells that supply the city produce 9,500 acre-feet of water per year, or 72 percent of the total demand.

By 2020, city staff hope to have reduced that 3,700 acre-foot gap to zero both by increasing production and lessening demand.

Exactly how all this will be accomplished will be laid out in a Water Master Plan that brings together four disparate studies into one cohesive document that covers water supply, urban water management, water shortage solutions and watershed management.

It will also examine the ground water, the facilities at staff disposal and a financial analysis.

The benefits of producing all of your own water are numerous, but it boils down to two central slogans: lower cost and local control.

Santa Monica lost its ability to produce water in 1996 when a dangerous chemical called methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, leaked into the groundwater from gas stations and poisoned seven of 11 local wells.

For nearly 15 years, Santa Monica purchased water from the Metropolitan Water District, which pumps water from northern California and from the Colorado River.

Transporting the water costs a lot, primarily in electricity and natural gas costs.

According to the staff presentation, 19 percent of the electricity and 30 percent of the natural gas used in California is used to pump water through the state.

As the price of oil and gas increase, the cost of buying water from the MWD also rises.

Projections of imported water costs from MWD indicate treated water costs will approach $1,200 per acre foot by the year 2020.

Currently, the price of treated water is $744 per acre foot, according to the staff report.

Beyond the price tag, the ability to control the flow of water gives City Hall flexibility and independence from the larger municipalities and some state regulations.

State-mandated protections for animals like the Delta smelt caused headaches for valley farmers and Southern California residents alike when it slowed the spigot of water available from the Sacramento area, for instance.

At present, local wells supply nearly three-quarters of the water used, and city staff plans to attack the problem both from supply and from demand.

Methods include capturing runoff water when it rains. On dry days, the Santa Monica Urban Rain Runoff Facility captures 325,000 gallons of urban runoff.

When it rains, all of the additional water runs straight to the ocean.

Staff will also look into regional partnerships to recycle water.

On the demand side, Santa Monica will try to encourage citizens to continue conserving water.

Although generally celebrated as a eco-friendly city, Santa Monica’s water use comes in almost 30 gallons per capita more than nearby Long Beach, and approximately six gallons more per day than Los Angeles.

“We can do so much more,” urged Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay. Gold came to speak in support of the planning efforts.

In general, environmental activists came to speak out for a more energetic approach to water conservation.

Councilmember Kevin McKeown envisioned the Water Master Plan process not just as a road map, but as a paradigm shift about how to use scarce water resources.

“We have an opportunity to look at it a different way tonight,” he said. “Perhaps the glass is neither half full nor half empty, perhaps it’s twice as big as it needs to be.”

Although the timeline isn’t hard and fast, Water Resources hopes to farm out the project by July 2011, and see a final product by the end of fiscal year 2012.

It won’t be easy, but it’s doable, Borboa said.

“It’s an ambitious plan, admittedly, but a big part of the value is the journey as much as the destination,” he said. “We’ll work diligently toward getting to that goal.”


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