Santa Barbara Raises the Bar With Sheffield Water Quality Project

The City of Santa Barbara won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Public Works, Infrastructure and Transportation category of the 2007 Helen Putnam Award program. For more information about the award program, visit

Safe drinking water is one of the vital community services that cities provide for their residents. The Sheffield Water Quality Project was a 10-year effort by the City of Santa Barbara to protect its drinking water supply and ensure its ability to comply with the more stringent federal drinking water regulations implemented in 2002.

Many factors made meeting the objective challenging, including obtaining approvals from numerous city, state and federal agencies; securing funding for the $22 mil lion project; balancing the needs and concerns of the many stakeholders; and replacing the old open-air reservoir and earth-filled dam with two buried reser voirs while providing uninterrupted water service to the surrounding area.

The Sheffield Water Quality Project was successfully completed in 2006. Today it’s a multi-resource site that contains municipal water storage facilities, supports an emergency firefighting staging area and a police canine training facility, and provides 20 acres of open space for the public to enjoy.

Technical Issues and Challenges

Constructed in 1917 on a remote 20-acre parcel in the Santa Barbara foothills, the Sheffield Reservoir was a 45 million- gallon, open-air, potable-water reservoir serving as the city’s primary water storage facility. By 1996, the reservoir provided water storage for approximately one-third of the city’s residents, and its once-remote location had become an affluent residential neighborhood.

The uncovered reservoir was susceptible to wind-blown contaminants, and the stored water had to be rechlorinated before it could be delivered to customers. Furthermore, the chlorine-water-sunlight reaction produced disinfection byprod ucts (trihalomethanes). In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reduced the allowable limits for disinfection byproducts in drinking water to levels that the reservoir water could not consistently meet. More stringent water regula tions, coupled with heightened security concerns, prompted the city to explore alternatives to the uncovered reservoir.

Project Criteria

Conceptual design of the Sheffield Water Quality project began in 1996. Project leaders consulted water experts and de-sign engineers and held neighborhood outreach workshops. The design process was lengthy and arduous, as solving one problem often created other problems that had to be mitigated.

A comprehensive environmental impact report evaluated proposed solutions. The report determined that the preferred al ternative for meeting the new water quality regulations was to bury two reservoirs below a multi-use community facility.

A 13-person ad hoc committee composed of city board members and neighbors identified the project’s primary criteria. The required elements included protecting the water supply by constructing two buried concrete reservoirs and creating a public open space that would support emergency personnel, retaining an existing fire-resistant demonstration garden, and preserving on-site historic elements that celebrate the area’s rich water history.

Meeting the Challenge

Constructing the Sheffield Water Quality Project was a formidable endeavor. Prior to removing the reservoir and replacing it with two buried 6.5 million-gallon concrete reservoirs, two temporary 1.5 million-gallon water storage tanks had to be constructed on-site to provide uninterrupted water service to customers during the two-year construction effort. Other challenges included a limited construction area, site dewatering issues, strict noise limits and reduced construction hours, plus the EPA’s pending deadline of more stringent water quality regulations.

Securing funding for this $22 million project was an enormous concern. The city was awarded a $20 million loan through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loan program. City water rate-payers will pay the low-interest loan over the next 20 years.

The project faced an intensive list of approvals by 10 local discretionary bodies, five state agencies and two federal agencies. The design team worked diligently to thoughtfully respond to the concerns and requirements raised by each approval body and agency. Detailed project planning, strict schedule adherence and free-flowing communication were the keys to the project’s success.

A Premier Water Facility and Public Site

The Sheffield Water Quality Project has produced many benefits. The city’s potable water is now secure from airborne contaminants, vandalism and terrorism. Concealing the water to protect it from sunlight has reduced the need to rechlorinate the water, thus reducing the levels of disinfection byproducts in the water. A 20-acre public open space has been created on top of the buried reservoirs, providing a passive recreational facility on a site that had been closed to the public for more than 90 years. The end result is the product of collaborative strategic planning efforts among a talented de sign team, government officials and many stakeholders. The project includes the following elements:

  • Water facilities. These facilities com prise two buried 6.5 million-gallon, concrete potable water reservoirs, a control building, upgraded valve house and related piping.
  • Passive open space. The project restored the landscape to its original pre-1917 condition with rolling terrain, trails, approximately 450 oak trees and oak savannah habitat, and other native plants and grasses.
  • Historic features. The historic 1925 Sheffield Filtration Building has been mothballed on-site. Other historic water facilities have been transformed, and plaques have been placed throughout the open space to educate visitors about the site’s impressive water history. The new reservoirs are named in commemo ration of Myron Hoover and Robert McLaughlin, who drowned in Sheffield Reservoir while working for the city.
  • Emergency services facilities. The open space incorporates a firefighting staging area and fire hydrants to serve as field headquarters in the event of wildfire. The city’s Police Canine Train ing Facility, which is used by police departments from both Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, was relocated on-site. A perimeter road provides city personnel with site security and access. Removing the dam associated with the reservoir eliminated the risk of flooding.
  • Firescape demonstration garden. The garden was retained to educate the public about drought-tolerant and fire-resistant native plants.

The Sheffield Water Quality Project used an innovative approach to secure the city’s water supply and improve its water quality. The project demonstrates sound, long-term planning that enhances the environment and provides recreational and educational opportunities for the community’s benefit. For more informa tion, visit  

Contact: Catherine Taylor, water system manager, Public Works Department; phone: (805) 564-5379; e-mail:

This article appears in the July 2008 issue of Western City
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