Assistant city administrator Paul Casey expressed mixed feelings and cautious optimism that the state regulatory agencies with oversight over the licensing of coastal desalination plants will eventually agree that Santa Barbara’s permits for its long-mothballed desal plant could be deemed valid in case the drought continues. Casey traveled to Sacramento accompanied by Councilmember Dale Francisco to make their case to the California Coastal Commission and the State Water Quality Control Board.
Casey said he felt “really happy” about his conversations with Coastal Commission staff about the matter, though he cautioned nothing has been put in writing yet. The State Water Quality Control Board might pose greater challenges, he said, noting that the city’s permit which includes provisions for the emergency desalination plant expires next May. Should it not rain this fall, city water planners had planned to decide whether to pursue the desal option no later than April.
In addition, the state board is currently conducting a major policy overhaul on desalination plants in general, and it’s hard to tell whether the city’s plans will conform to the new policy. “We’re not pushing the panic button here,” Casey said, “but we’re dealing with a plan that hasn’t been released yet.” In general, however, the state water board frowns on desal plants that suck water from the surface of the ocean floor because they’re more deadly to aquatic life in the larval stage.
The city’s desalination facility — built in 1992 — relies on such an intake system. In recent years, the state agency has made clear its preference for subsurface intake systems. Casey said such a requirement would be much more expensive and could delay a start-up of the desal plant well past the time it’s most urgently needed.