Open: The Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project officially opened this week. Emily Sawicki

Thursday morning marked a watershed moment in Santa Monica history as Mayor Sue Himmelrich, in one of her final formal appearances as a local dignitary, cut the ribbon on the $96 million water treatment plant affectionately known as SWIP, the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project.

The celebratory opening featured statements from a who’s who of public figures in the greater Los Angeles water world, from Santa Monica Water Resources Manager Sunny Wang to LA County Public Works Director Mark Pastrella.

Wang kicked off the statements with a reflection on the history of water in Santa Monica, acknowledging the Tongva people and the Kuruvungna springs, also known as the Gabrieleno Tongva Springs, from which the name Santa Monica comes (early Spaniards believed the springs invoked the image of a weeping Catholic Saint Monica). 

According to Wang, staff visited Kuruvungna Sacred Springs before embarking on SWIP.

“During the time that we spent at the stream, I was reminded of a large connection that we have between water, sustainable land management, as well as environmental practices to have a sustainable community. It also puts in perspective the role that governments play and that we must play in protecting the environment and preserving this precious resource — water — which gives us life,” Wang said. “So, please take a moment of silence to pay respects to elders and to all the Gabrieleno and Tongva people past and present. Not only do we look to the past and present, we also look forward to working with them in the future as we continue to learn from them  how to incorporate sustainable practices in our everyday life.”

With droplet-shaped lapel pins (featuring a leaf motif that dovetails with the shape of the drop for maximum symbolism) adorning their suit jackets, civic leaders touted the new project for its dual ability to both reuse wastewater and divert polluted water before it enters the Santa Monica Bay.

Following remarks, guests ate droplet-shaped cookies and secured tickets to tour the brand new facility, hidden underground beneath a parking lot between the Courthouse and Civic Auditorium on Main Street.

Once in action, local water experts estimate SWIP will increase the annual local water supply by about 10%, given its ability to capture and treat both Santa Monica wastewater and urban runoff from the Pico-Kenter storm drain. Once treated, SWIP’s water will exceed California cleanliness standards for drinking water.

Current state regulations mean that squeaky clean water cannot immediately flow out of local taps and into water glasses; instead, at least for now, SWIP-treated water will go toward irrigation and dual-piped buildings where treated water is used to flush toilets. 

Any remainder will be re-injected into the water table for storage, until city wells draw it up for more treatment to become drinking water.

“The City partnered with the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Division of Drinking Water to develop treatment standards for stormwater to be indirectly injected into our groundwater aquifer; that is a first in the state of California,” Santa Monica Public Works Director Rick Valte said during the grand opening event Thursday. Valte went on to detail how the project would replenish groundwater aquifers after treating both wastewater and stormwater through a state-of-the-art process.

Of the $96 million price tag, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California contributed more than $19 million over 25 years; The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works added $7.5 million through Measure W’s Safe Clean Water Program; and the State Water Resources Control Board chipped in a $75 million clean water state revolving fund loan and $8.77 million through a Prop 1 Stormwater Grant.

With SWIP first envisioned in the 2018 Santa Monica Sustainable Water Master Plan, Thursday’s event felt a bit like a graduation party for a project four years in the making. Visitors ate complimentary donuts and sipped out of SWIP reusable water bottles; dignitaries used a silver Sharpie marker to sign their names and write congratulatory messages on a foam-core plaque that will hang in the underground facility, not unlike signing a yearbook page.

After words from several officials, it came time to cut the big red ribbon.

Around Himmelrich, whose term on city council was set to end in December, were other local leaders: Wang and Valte; Council Members Lana Negrete, Gleam Davis and Kristin McCowan; City Manager David White; LA County Public Works Director Mark Pastrella; former mayor and current Water District Secretary Judy Abdo; and other notable guests. State Senator Ben Allen, who was initially scheduled to speak at the opening, was not in attendance.