The city of Santa Monica is celebrating the return of its local water supply. In a classic David vs. Goliath case, Santa Monica took on Big Oil to restore the people’s rights to a clean, local water supply. The combination of leaking underground gasoline storage tanks and the addition of MTBE as an oxygenate in gasoline led to massive contamination of Santa Monica’s Charnock well field in the mid 1990s. The groundwater pollution left Santa Monica completely reliant on high priced MWD water imported from the Delta and the Colorado River. Until the wells were shut off in 1996, approximately 70% of the city’s water supply came from local groundwater. After an incredibly hard fought litigation and negotiations, Shell Oil (the biggest aquifer polluter), ExxonMobil and Chevron settled with the city for about $250 million.
In a world that seems increasingly dominated by Big Oil, Santa Monica stood up to the polluters and successfully fought for one of our basic human rights: clean water.
The rehabilitation of the Santa Monica Water Treatment Plant in West L.A., which was celebrated last week, is so much bigger than restoring local water supply to the people that live and work in Santa Monica. People like Joe Lawrence (city attorney’s office), Craig Perkins (former public works director), Gil Borboa (water resources manager), Lisette Gold (senior water engineer and my wife), and so many more devoted countless hours on every aspect of this effort, including litigation, technical support, project management and work with the Regional Water Board to get settlement approval.
The end result sends a $250 million message to the petroleum industry: You can’t take away a public good without consequences. Although $250 million is less than a week’s profit for some of these oil companies, the Santa Monica victory should demonstrate to cities and counties throughout the country that the public’s right to clean water is worth the fight.
The payout was used to buy MWD water (about $700 an acre foot with the potential of rising to $880/af very soon), and to design, construct and operate new groundwater treatment facilities adjacent to Windward High School and at the city’s water treatment plant at Bundy. The approach for the project is not to remediate or clean up the contaminated groundwater within the aquifer, but to provide wellhead treatment to give people who live and work in Santa Monica a reliable, sustainable water supply. The leadership in Santa Monica made it clear that a sustainable city should not rely on imported water from the ecologically impaired Delta or over-allocated Colorado River.
The water costs about $600/af because of the high level of treatment provided by the city. The water is treated with granulated activated carbon, mechanical aeration, reverse osmosis, and chlorination. The end result is 8 million gallons per day of water that easily meet all drinking water standards and that cost significantly less than MWD water.
In California, where so many of our urban aquifers are polluted by chlorinated solvents and gasoline constituents, wellhead treatment will become an increasingly viable alternative for sustainable local water supplies. We just don’t have the luxury of waiting two, three or even four decades for contaminated groundwater to get cleaned up before using it. With improvements in water treatment technologies, water providers can pump and clean contaminated groundwater and then immediately provide it to local businesses and residents. Look for this approach, often in conjunction with enhanced groundwater recharge from storm flows, to increase dramatically statewide.
Santa Monica now is considering a resolution to get to 100% local water self sufficiency by 2020. Although the ambitious goal is an extremely worthy one, attainment of self reliance will prove difficult. The city will have to expand rainwater capture and re-use efforts (the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Reuse Facility is the most obvious current success) and improve its award-winning water conservation programs. Another potential source of new local water to the city would be enhanced stormwater infiltration, but even this approach will prove challenging because of the potential impacts of recharged stormwater on the fate and transport of the TCE and PCE contaminant plumes in the Olympic corridor area.
Even with these challenges, through xeriscape landscape ordinances, shifts to waterless urinals, greater use of stormwater capture and best management practices like small and large volume cisterns and other conservation and rainwater use strategies, Santa Monica could still wean itself from MWD water and become 100% self sufficient.