Santa Barbara's dormant water desalination plant.
Paul Wellman

Left, right, or center, everybody agrees that water is a scarce resource in Santa Barbara. That’s why the City Council voted unanimously to take the first steps toward reactivating the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility at 525 East Yanonali Street.

The facility was built because of a drought that lasted from 1986-1991, but by its completion in 1992, wet weather had returned. With sufficient freshwater supplies, the desal plant was placed in standby mode in 1994, and since then, some of its equipment has been sold off. As we enter year four of a historic drought ​— ​a phenomenon likely to recur in the age of global warming ​— ​freshwater supplies dwindle, and the water market grows fierce, the plant could be Santa Barbara’s savior.

One element of the City Council’s action was to authorize an expedited design-build-operate (DBO) bidding process in which one firm completes all of these tasks. (The typical process is design-bid-build). On Monday, the Public Works department took prospective bidders on a tour of the desal facilities.

The city would like to award a contract by April, waiting just long enough to allow for the possibility of a rainy winter. Should the city go ahead and award a contract, the hope is to have the plant operational by summer 2016 and producing 5,000 acre-feet of water by 2017. Reactivation will cost about $32 million, and ramping the plant up to its capacity of 7,500 acre-feet per year will cost $28 million more. That total of $60 million, many have noted, is about three times the number that city staff threw out when discussions of reactivation first got underway.

The Water Resources Division estimates an associated rate hike of $14-$20 per month for the average single family home customer. Even with that hike, noted Councilmember Gregg Hart, Santa Barbara residents would still be paying less than customers of the other South Coast water districts.

Environmental groups, however, wonder if the city isn’t moving a bit too fast. They have been pushing officials and staff to incorporate plans to convert the inflow portion of the desalination facility to a subsurface intake. This means that rather than suck in water from the open ocean, the plant would pull water from sand below the ocean floor, potentially resulting in a much lower impact on marine life.

A consultant from Carollo Engineers Inc. told City Council that incorporating a subsurface intake would slow down the process of reactivating the desal facility because it would require intense assessment, including dredging and drilling, along with the necessary permitting. He also noted scant scientific data on the efficiency and environmental impact of facilities with subsurface intakes.

Some environmental groups had demanded that the DBO Request for Proposal require a feasibility study for a subsurface intake. “What we’re asking isn’t easy and expedient,” Kira Redmond, executive director of Channelkeeper, told The Santa Barbara Independent, “but it’s the right thing to do.”

It is also, possibly, the legal thing to do. The State Water Resources Control Board, anticipating statewide interest in desalination, has drafted amended regulations that indicate a preference for subsurface intakes. The city, however, is questioning the breadth of the state board’s authority to regulate intakes at municipal facilities like Santa Barbara’s, making its case in a 23-page letter Public Works Director Rebecca Bjork sent to the board last month.

Although councilmembers did not capitulate to altering the Request for Proposal, they were definitely swayed by the lobbying of environmentalists. Mayor Helene Schneider asked for a motion to initiate a discussion of the feasibility of both conversion to a subsurface intake and recycling of wastewater after a contract is awarded in April 2015. Councilmember Cathy Murillo most vocally supported conversion. And while Councilmember Dale Francisco suggested that Channelkeeper’s concerns about marine life mortality were based on power plant intakes that are “orders of magnitude greater” than desalination plant intakes, he, along with the rest of the council, voted yes on the motion.

Heal the Ocean, another environmental group, has stressed the point that a desalination facility is energy-intensive and, unless powered by renewable energy, would create more carbon dioxide, exacerbating the greenhouse effect that causes global warming. The group has commissioned RMC Engineering to complete a cost feasibility study for an indirect potable reuse project that would recycle wastewater and then pump it back into the water table. James Hawkins, Heal the Ocean’s policy analyst, told the council the study was “a gift to the city.”


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