Construction: Representatives from the City of Santa Monica, California Department of Water Resources and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California gathered to kick-off construction of the project. Pictured are Mayor Sue Himmelrich, Carlos De Leon, Adel Hagekhalil, Jennifer Pulido, Susan Cline, Sunny Wang, Rick Valte, Mayor Pro Tem Kristin McCowan and City Manager David White. Emily Sawicki

You turn on the tap on your kitchen sink and cool, clean water comes out.

Ten years ago, half of that water would have been purchased from outside sources like the State Water Project and Colorado River; the other half would have come from Santa Monica’s local groundwater wells. Flash forward to 2017, and the City’s conservation efforts — with customers using, on average, 18 percent less water citywide — cut down imported water to just 29 percent of the overall water used in the city.

On Thursday, Jan. 20, officials officially broke ground on a $72 million improvement project designed to further evaporate the amount of water the city imports: expansion and modernization of the Arcadia Water Treatment Plant near the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Bundy Drive, just outside city limits.

“Santa Monica is actually a giant when it comes to resiliency and sustainability, and I applaud you for your leadership and we want to learn from you and apply that across our entire region,” Adel Hagekhalil of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “I’m committed to taking the Santa Monica spirit — the ‘one water’ spirit; the collaboration spirit; the innovation, integration, and inclusion spirit — across our region.”

Hagekhalil joined other local dignitaries and engineers pushing golden shovels into a symbolic mound of dirt to signal the start of the improvement project, which will use new technology to increase current water treatment capability by 10 percent.

“So, with [current] technology, traditionally, on this application, the recovery is about 80 percent, meaning if 10 gallons of water comes in, eight gallons of that is drinking water and two gallons of that is concentrated salt waste that is sent to the sewer,” Santa Monica Water Resources Manager Sunny Wang explained. “With this upgrade and leveraging new technology, we’re able to increase that recovery from 80 to 90 percent. So, instead of eight gallons of drinking water we’re getting out of that, we’re getting nine gallons, and only one gallon of waste. So, that’s producing more drinking water without having to extract additional groundwater to help with our sustainability.”

According to Wang, the project — set for completion in early to mid 2023 — was to be the first of its kind in the United States, using technology tested in Israel, Singapore and parts of Europe.

“The great thing about Santa Monica is that we’re not afraid to be the first to lead the charge and try new technology, but we do make sure that it is reliable, it is proven, before we implement it full scale,” Wang said. The City recently completed an eight-month pilot study of the technology before committing to it at the Arcadia facility.

In 2011, the City announced a plan to become water self-sufficient by 2020. Permitting delays reportedly pushed back the timeline and, by 2018, the City had set a new target to be self-sufficient by 2023.

The Arcadia project, together with an expansion of the Olympic Well Field and the imminent (long-awaited) completion of the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, or SMURRF, in September, have the City on track to hit that goal next year.

This, despite the pandemic wreaking havoc on Santa Monica’s municipal budget. Public Works Director Rick Valte said the project was coming in on time thanks to Wang’s team finding alternative funding.

“The momentum that we had built up to that point almost came to a screeching halt,” Valte said during his address at the groundbreaking.

“As many of you know, our city was hit very hard by the economic impact of COVID-19,” Valte went on to say later in his remarks. “By the end of — the middle of — 2020, it was necessary for us to divert the funds that were set aside for this project in order to help the City maintain essential services and support the recovery process. So, we were at risk of pausing our water self-sufficiency goals at the time.”

But, Valte said later, in addition to the department pivoting its policies to focus on health and safety measures, Wang’s team was able to secure millions in outside funding.

“Sunny and his team decided to go outside and see what funding was available through grant funding, loans and things of that nature,” Valte said.

Eventually, the team settled on a state water revenue bond — which was later approved by City Council — and secured a $19 million grant from the Municipal Water District of Southern California to relieve strain on local water resources. The project had already received a $10 million Proposition 1 water desalination grant from the California Department of Water Resources, which was finalized in June 2021. In total, the city’s team secured $45 million in grant funding toward water projects.

“They were able to pivot and go aggressively after available monies that were out there,” Valte said. “The science kept going, some construction that was in the works kept going, and it was as if nothing ever happened.”

emily@smdp.com