Santa Barbara's dormant water desalination plant.
Paul Wellman

The start-up date for Santa Barbara’s desalination plant has been pushed back again, this time to mid-March 2017. City water czar Joshua Haggmark notified the Water Commission of the latest delay at a meeting last week, prompting Commissioner Barry Keller to comment afterward, “Things have gone from worse to Worcestershire.”

According to Haggmark, construction crews recently connected two stretches of underwater pipeline, which he termed a “major milestone” and something “we were nervous about.” Haggmark also said the desal plant has been successfully hooked up to the power grid and should begin receiving actual seawater sometime in mid-December. After pumping starts, a 40-day “maturation” process is required, during which time the media of the water filtration membranes are biologically cured. Haggmark stressed that the engineering and construction process is highly complex, adding, “There’s still a lot of vulnerability out there.”

Haggmark said some of the delays so far stemmed from unanticipated issues, such as lead contamination in the soil surrounding the onshore facility. Others he described as being “unexcused,” but he said he’s been assured by the contractor that the project will be successfully completed. The $60 million question, of course, is when. “If it’s anytime in February, I’ll be happy,” said Keller.

But Haggmark had more bad news to share, telling the commissioners that the city’s recently rebuilt reclaimed water system was on the blink as the system’s PVC pipes showed signs of cracking. Although the pipes are designed to withstand pressures of 200 pounds per square inch, they were showing signs of giving out at 50 psi. Had city workers been nearby, Haggmark said, they would have been in physical danger. Although demand for the recycled treated wastewater that is relatively low ​— ​2.5 acre-feet per day ​— ​with the new facility down, city parks, fields, and golf courses will be using potable water instead. While Haggmark did not announce that City Hall would be suing the contractor, it was clear the matter is currently under deliberation in closed session by the City Council.


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