A contingent of high-ranking officials from the City of Santa Barbara spent two days meeting with officials from the State Water Resources Control Board and the California Coastal Commission, fielding questions about their efforts to reactivate the long-dormant desalination plant. The question was whether the desal plant’s operating permits are, in fact, as valid as city water planners say they are. In early April, Coastal Commission planners Alison Dettmer and Tom Lundt notified acting city water czar Josh Haggmark that the city’s desalination permits were invalid, the city’s desal plant technologically outdated, and it would inflict too much of an environmental threat to the aquatic environment since it drew its water directly from the ocean floor rather than drilling down into the sand — as new plants do. The old technique is regarded as putting at risk a wide variety of microscopic sea-life larvae.
The city argued it intended to operate the plant only as a last resort in times of dire emergency; thus the environmental consequences would not have the impact projected. The plant was considerably smaller than some of the major plans now under consideration, like the City of Carlsbad’s, they stressed, which would draw 10 times more water per day than Santa Barbara’s and would be an ongoing water supply. By contrast, Santa Barbara has aggressively sought and secured other water supplies, Haggmark noted, and has adopted a new water-rate structure that will encourage water conservation by financially penalizing heavy users.
To date, the City Council has authorized $800,000 to study reactivating the desal plant by 2016 should the drought persist at a cost of $28 million; the plant initially cost $34 million to build and another $5 million annually to operate.
Susan Jordan — an environmental activist bird-dogging the issue on behalf of the California Coastal Protection group — speculated City Hall might have tough going with the Central Coast Water Resources Control Board, which has taken a hard line against ocean floor intake used by coastal power plants. She said the city’s study showing that subsurface intake was infeasible was as old and outdated as its study that no marine life was harmed. “If the city’s looking to spend $28 million to start up an antiquated plant, why not spend a little to make sure you do it with the least impact possible?”