Wastewater facility renamed in Santa Barbara because many uses come from site

El Estero Water Resource Center

The El Estero Water Resource Center serves 93,000 Santa Barbara customers and 7-million visitors.  (John Palminteri/KEYT.com)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The wastewater in Santa Barbara is becoming one of the area's most valuable resources.

It is being converted into several different uses when most people think it goes down the drain and into the ocean.

The city has just renamed its water treatment facility and it will now be called the El Estero Water Resource Center.

"It will be used for more projects than ever before," said Santa Barbara Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark.

Demands are already high. The center services 93,000 city residents and 7-million visitors annually.

It is described as "sustainable, reliable and resilient" and operates 365 days a year.

A team of 56 employees including scientists, chemists and engineers are on site.

At a name changing celebration, Heal the Ocean Executive Director Hillary Hauser said 30 years ago she learned the waste at the site was a serious concern and could be the start of a harmful impact on the environment if the discharge continued as it was. 

"Here we are now celebrating this wonderful treatment of water and not calling it sewage anymore but a water resource," Hauser said at the event.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Regional Director Mike Stoker said in an Earth Day message, "not only are we treating 6 million gallons of water a day, but we are recycling and that is going to the parks and our schools."

Some of the other waste is being used in agriculture to add nutrients to soils.

The waste is also generating electricity through other processes and that is generating 70 percent of the power for the plant.

"Well everybody is realizing the value of wasted water. That is what wastewater is: wasted water. So take the waste out and get the water," said Hauser.

She said eventually some of it will be blended into drinking water to enhance supplies. 

"The Cater [Water] Treatment Plant will take the desal[inated] water, the recycled water, the Lake Cachuma water, the State water... it all goes into that reservoir, mixed up and is treated as drinking water. So it is one water," said Hauser.

Years ago there was a term "toilet to tap" but that is no longer used because that process is not what takes place in any form said Hauser.

The city agrees but explains the water blending being discussed involves several sources, and meeting strict safety standards before it's used. "The technology exists to do it and there will be multiple layers of protections but we can not deny where we are headed," said Haggmark.

The EPA says the efforts here to clean and reclaim the water and not simply dumping it in the ocean is the type of project the government is looking to fund in more ways in the years ahead.

"Not many of these facilities exist. 10, 15, 20 years from now this is what the norm will be across the country. Santa Barbara is the trendsetter like it often is when it comes to environmental issues," said Stoker.  He said he EPA is committed to the mission by "supporting critical water infrastructure here and across the nation.”

Those attending included Mayor Cathy Murillo and members of the city council. They joined local environmental leaders on a tour of the facility to have a better understanding of what it does and how much more it's being used now than at any time in its past.

The plant was constructed in 1951. Improvements have been based on the population growth and technological advances.

Poet Laureate Laure-Anne Bosselaar also spoke at the event referencing the precious nature of water for this and every community.

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