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Santa Monica’s bold 2023 water self-sufficiency deadline nears

Monday, 8 August 2022

Famous for its iconic pier, Santa Monica has been on a journey to become "water self-sufficient" by 2023. What does this mean and is it achievable?

One year to go

Santa Monica, one of the most iconic cities in the state of California. Aside from its famous pier and amusement park, or infamous Muscle Beach featured in almost every Hollywood movie during the 70s - Santa Monica is famous for another reason in the water sector.

By 2023, the city is planning to be water self-sufficient. This has largely been driven out of necessity: a need to become resilient against the threats of earthquakes and climate change.

California’s two largest reservoirs are at critically low levels, signalling that the state, like much of the US west, can expect a searing, dry summer ahead.

Lake Oroville, the state’s second-largest reservoir, is at 55 per cent of its total capacity while Shasta Lake, California’s largest reservoir, was at only 40 per cent capacity.

What is water self-sufficiency?

In the context of Santa Monica, being water self-sufficient means no longer being dependent on importing its water.

To provide context, between 2012 and 2017, the city imported 25-30 per cent of its water requirements to meet demand.

Instead, Santa Monica defines achieving self-sufficiency by using water produced only from local groundwater and other local sources and maintaining a resilient system to meet water demand.

“Creating an offset programme ensures the flexibility the business community needs while providing a funding stream for important water conservation efforts such as retrofitting existing buildings.”

In 2017, the city implemented a water neutrality requirement on new construction projects, limiting new water demand from projects that use more water than previous ones.

“The city was committed to establishing a water conservation programme that serves the community and provides the certainty developers need when planning new projects,” said Thomas Fleming, sustainability analyst, water conservation for the City of Santa Monica.

“Creating an offset programme ensures the flexibility the business community needs, while providing a funding stream for important water conservation efforts such as retrofitting existing buildings with more efficient fixtures.”

What has Santa Monica done so far?

Santa Monica has labelled the strategy as the "One Water" approach, committing a US$200 million investment programme to achieve water self-sufficiency.

Currently, the city is implementing various components of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Project to significantly expand the use of alternative sources of water, like stormwater, wastewater and brackish water.

As part of the offset programme, Santa Monica says that applicants that are required to offset water use have two options for compliance:

  1. They may offset new water demand by installing water-efficient systems
  2. By paying an in-lieu fee that directly funds the city’s Water Neutrality Direct Install Program.

Offsets continue to fund the city’s Direct Install Program, with more than 5,000 high-efficiency fixtures installed for a total estimated water offset/saved to date: 24.5 million gallons/year since the programme began.

The Direct Install Program is funded by the water neutrality offsets and to date, more than 5,000 high-efficiency fixtures have been installed.

Other key component to the plan is the restoration of the Olympic Well Field and upgrade of the Arcadia water treatment plant – the beating heart of the city’s water supply.

Companies involved in upgrading the facility include engineering consultancy, Brown & Caldwell, Walsh Construction and ROTEC by WFI GROUP. Furthermore, a $10 million grant from the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) has been used to trial and implement a Flow Reversal Reverse Osmosis innovation.

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