As a part of our waste(d)water campaign, Heal the Ocean is pushing for the Santa Barbara region to turn every drop of its wastewater supplies into clean and reliable recycled water.

In 2001...

we started calling for wastewater treatment plants to upgrade treatment – we were, and are, against using the ocean to dilute waste. The pushback was, it will cost the moon!” We said, “Let us find out how much the moon costs, then.” We ordered up a study to determine cost feasibility of upgrading all five wastewater treatment plants discharging into the ocean off south Santa Barbara County. That study, Cost of Tertiary Wastewater Treatment for Southern Santa Barbara County, by Metcalf & Eddy engineers (2001) was completely ahead of its time and became an important source of information much later, when Santa Barbara County began to look for sources of water during the drought.

At the same time...


we waged a battle at the Regional Water Quality Control Board to deny a continuation of a 301(h) waiver for the Goleta Sanitary District (GSD) to continue discharging wastewater that was not fully treated (a mix of primary & secondary). To make our point, Executive Director Hillary Hauser and Jeff Maassen dived on the GSD outfall in 90 ft. of water, and showed the Regional Board what the issue was.

Winning the Appeals

After winning the 301h waiver battle at the Regional Board, GSD filed an appeal to overturn the decision at the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). With attorney Vickie Clark, we traveled to Sacramento, fought the appeal – and we won! GSD was now ready to upgrade its treatment plant. HTO helped by pinning down $500,000 for GSD to add co-generation into its upgrade.

GSD New Plant Ribbon Cutting (2013)


14 years later, when GSD officials cut the ribbon on the finished, upgraded treatment plant in 2013, we were there to celebrate with them! GSD is now at the forefront of wastewater recycling, and in 2016 joined the Goleta Water District in a GOLETA POTABLE REUSE FACILITIES PLAN. HTO organized the GSD and GWD district managers to apply for a state grant to pay for half of the cost of the plan.

HTO Receives $330,000 State Grant for Sewer Outfall Study

UCSB researcher launches computerized drifter off Montecito outfall, 2007

UCSB researcher launches computerized drifter off Montecito outfall, 2007

In 2007 Heal the Ocean received a $333,000 Proposition 50 Clean Beaches Initiative grant for a revolutionary oceanographic and microbiological ocean outfall study that tracked the travel of wastewater once it is discharged into the ocean. Called the "Shallow Ocean Wastewater Outfall Source Tracking Project" (SOWOST) the project focused on the Montecito Sanitary District outfall, which discharges into 23 feet of water, 1,100 feet off Butterfly Beach in Montecito.

During the 3-year project, UCSB oceanographers Libe Washburn and Carter Ohlmann teamed up with microbiologist Dr. Trish Holden and her laboratory staff. During the first year of the project scientists went to the outfall every week and deploy GPS drifters to computer-map where the sewage plume travels. Ocean-water samples were taken from the spots where the drifters drifted, and those samples went into Dr. Holden's lab at UCSB to for DNA and bacteria analysis. The study proved inconclusive as to the outfall impact on human health, but revealed interesting facts about travel time, near-shore currents and patterns of discharge.

See the Drifters!

Composite picture of one year of weekly drifter travels

Composite picture of one year of weekly drifter travels

California Ocean Wastewater Discharge Report and Inventory (2010)

Meanwhile, we undertook a mammoth multi-year project to tally up all the wastewater being discharged into the ocean off the California coast. This report is a compilation of extensive research by Heal the Ocean to document the quality and extent of wastewater discharges into the Pacific Ocean – from the Oregon border to San Diego/Tijuana – in the State of California. 

IRWM Recycled Water Plan for the South Coast

HTO serves on the Santa Barbara County Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) committee, and one of our accomplishments was to work with with county and local officials to formulate and implement a recycled water plan for the County – identifying sources and customers. The result was THE SOUTH COAST RECYLED WATER PLAN.

Other wastewater districts came along too!

Heal the Ocean facilitated Proposition 1 grants for a number of wastewater/water districts to upgrade to recycled water. Including:

  • Santa Ynez Recycled Water Facilities Plan (draft finished February 2017)
  • Goleta Potable Reuse Facilities Plan (draft finished May 2017)

Carpinteria Sanitary District/Carpinteria Valley Water District was moving forward on its own and finalized its plan in April 2016. HTO is still working on a recycled plan for Montecito and certain areas of the Santa Ynez Valley.

HTO continues to work with wastewater districts in Santa Barbara County to plan for and upgrade to recycled water.


Potable Reuse White Paper

In our push for the Santa Barbara region to turn every drop of its wastewater into clean and reliable recycled water, HTO Policy Analyst James Hawkins (2012-2016) conducted an exhaustive study on the potential for recycled water as an important water source.

Climate Change and Wastewater Infastructure

Isla Vista Cliffs during a King Tide. Photo (c) Bill Dewey

Isla Vista Cliffs during a King Tide. Photo (c) Bill Dewey

HTO has been researching the potential impacts of sea level rise (SLR) on wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). All WWTPs are built next to water for ease of disposal, whether ocean, creek, river or wetlands. Hurricane Sandy (2012) gave us a preview of the threat that climate change poses to wastewater infrastructure: 13 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage was released from wastewater treatment plants in the wake of intense rain from the hurricane. HTO continues to work on adaptation issues in all climate change planning scenarios.