Santa Barbara City Councilmember Bendy White expressed great frustration that city-led water conservation efforts have born such paltry fruit. To date, consumers have saved 160 acre-feet. That’s far shy of the target 700 acre-feet water managers had hoped to achieve by now and shyer still of the 1,000 acre-feet they’d hoped customers would have saved by the end of July. “This is not a dress rehearsal,” White stated. “That 600 acre-feet we didn’t save, we just paid $600,000 for that,” referring to the cost of buying water from rice farmers north of the San Joaquin Valley or from the commanders at Vandenberg Air Force Base. “That’s $600,000 down the proverbial drain.” White argued that if City Hall had approved a steeper rate increase or had imposed serious penalties for water-guzzling customers, the public would have gotten the message sooner and responded accordingly. The council did approve new higher water rates to encourage conservation, but White objected the top-tier prices weren’t severe enough. Penalties, the council was told, could go into effect as soon as September.
City Hall’s plans to resurrect its desalination plant also drew comment during Tuesday’s drought discussion. Some environmentalists, like Kira Redmond with the Channelkeeper, objected that the water intake valve of the mothballed facility killed aquatic creatures in large numbers. Acting water czar Josh Haggmark noted that the intake pipes are covered with a fine mesh screen so that larger fish can’t get sucked in and that the water velocity is low enough that smaller fish can swim away. Given the price tag of firing up the desal plant shut down 20 years ago — $30 million in capital expenses and $5 million year in operating costs — City Hall is not itching to pull the trigger. But if the drought continues, the council is poised to act next April.