High Price for Desal Plant

The City of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, built in 1992, could only become operational at an expense of $20 million and 16 months, according to a study commissioned by City Hall and released in March. While the desal plant would be reliable, it would also be expensive, with water costing $1,400 an acre-foot to produce. That’s roughly the same amount the city pays to import water from Northern California through the State Water Project. The desal plant, built in response to the intense drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s, has the capacity to process 3,125 acre-feet of potable water out of sea water. While the city built the plant, the $34 million facility was also paid for over a five-year period by the Montecito and Goleta water districts. By the time it was built, however, the South Coast had been inundated by extreme rains followed a few years later by the arrival of State Water. Designed to provide the ultimate in drought insurance, the facility operated for fewer than four months. Currently, City Hall spends $100,000 a year to maintain much of the plant’s carcass in operating condition. Much of the plant’s pumps and semi-impermeable membranes have to be replaced, hence the high costs associated with reactivation. There are no plans to operate the plant; the study was to determine what’s required for it to become operational.


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