It’s not as easy as flipping a switch; officials say it would cost $20 million and take two years to replace the reverse-osmosis membranes and upgrade the outdated equipment. The operations control room has computers from the plant’s test run in the early 1990s.
“It’s a time capsule,” Joshua Haggmark, the city’s interim water resources manager, told Noozhawk.
A temporary facility was proposed to deal with the crippling 1986-1991 drought. Santa Barbara went forward with the Goleta and Montecito water districts to fund the $34-million plant built by Ionics Inc.
In 1991, “Miracle March” rains that filled up local reservoirs resulted in the desalination plant being tested, but not used as a water supply. It was placed on standby and then “long-term storage mode.”
Under Santa Barbara’s long-range water plan, the sixth year of a drought would trigger consideration of bringing the plant back online. Just four months into the third dry year, however, that decision is years away.
City leaders are doing everything they can to delay — or avoid — reactivating the desalination plant, like pushing conservation and finding other water sources through private vendors or the State Water Project.
Desalination is a good fallback option, Haggmark said, but once the plant is running, it would dispense the most expensive treated water in Santa Barbara.
“I want to make sure the city knows what it’s getting into,” he said.
While water from Lake Cachuma or Gibraltar Reservoir costs about $100 per acre-foot, the desalinated water would cost about $1,500 per acre-foot — and that’s not including any of the start-up capital costs. Once those expenses are added, it’s more like $3,000 per acre-foot.
An acre-foot represents 326,000 gallons, the amount of water it would take to cover an acre, 12 inches deep. To put that in perspective, Haggmark said, three average single-family homes together use an acre-foot of water in a year.
The Charles Meyer Desalination Plant at 525 E. Yanonali St. utilizes a reverse-osmosis design, which pumps seawater through filters to catch the solid matter first, after which pure saltwater is pumped at high pressure through semi-permeable membranes to separate out the drinking water.
Water is pumped in from an intake station three-quarters of a mile offshore and then filtered at the plant. Solid waste is trucked away, wastewater is dumped out with the discharge from the El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant, and drinking water goes into the city’s reservoirs.
The reason this method is so expensive is the energy required. When the plant was built, it took pressure of 1,200 pounds per square inch, or PSI, to pump water through membranes, with huge motors. Even with newer technology and better membranes, it still requires 600 PSI — and a lot of energy — to make the system work.
It will also require a lot of pumping; most of the city’s water system relies on gravity for most distribution, which wouldn’t work for water starting at sea level. The lack of minerals in the desalinated water is also a challenge.
“It’s so pure that it’s a problem, because it starts stripping minerals from pipes and other things,” Haggmark said.
A 2009 study commissioned by the City Council determined it would take about $17 million — which staff has since rounded up to $20 million — to get the desalination facility running. It will need all new reverse-osmosis membranes, since they break down without use and were sold off to Saudi Arabia. For maintenance costs in standby mode, the city budgets $100,000 per year.
The city will hire an engineering firm to write up a reactivation plan for the facility, and then the City Council — if it votes to move forward — will put that project out to bid for the actual rehabilitation work needed. Later this month, Haggmark plans to issue a request-for-proposals for engineering firms.
The city is in better shape than other communities, relying on Lake Cachuma, Gibraltar Reservoir, state water, a year’s supply of groundwater and the recycled water treatment plant for parks, golf courses and school landscaping.
“We want a diverse water portfolio,” Haggmark said. “We know we live in a desert.”
Santa Barbarans do conserve more than other communities, partly as a result of the last drought. The city’s population has grown 5 percent — about 5,000 people — since the 1986-1991 drought, but the city’s water usage has decreased by 2,000 acre-feet per year: that’s 652 million gallons.
At the Feb. 11 City Council meeting, Haggmark will be asking the council to declare a drought. He’ll also be asking consumers to cut back by 10 percent. Gov. Jerry Brown’s statewide drought declaration asks for 20-percent reductions in water use.
“This community has already taken this seriously,” Haggmark said.
Even with conservation, Santa Barbara can’t live on saltwater alone. City water customers use about 12.5 million gallons per day and 14,000 acre-feet per year.
At the full permitted capacity of 7,500 acre-feet of water per year, the desalination facility would produce half of the city’s water needs. It was planned for even less the first time around, with 3,000 acre-feet and a sharing agreement with Goleta and Montecito for the rest.
The desalination plant was permitted by the California Coastal Commission in the mid-1990s after extensive environmental review, and the city believes that permit would stand since there are no new structures. The commission may disagree, however. If the capacity changed to more than the permitted amount, Haggmark said it would probably have to go through a new permit process.
Since Santa Barbara doesn’t have a big capital fund, the city would likely pay for the project with loans. It probably wouldn’t go it alone; the Montecito Water District definitely wants in, general manager Tom Mosby said.
“In the event Santa Barbara were to consider bringing desalination back online, we’d be more than happy to participate from a financial aspect,” he told Noozhawk.
Mosby believes desalination should be a permanent fixture in the Central Coast water supply to keep Lake Cachuma stronger for long drought periods.
It would be expensive once it starts, and would have an impact on water rates, but it will be important to have the desalination facility operational in years like this, he said.
Montecito is desperate for water. Mosby said the district is “scouring the state” for more to buy and the board of directors is considering ordinances to ration outdoor water use, which is where it’s overused. Flow restrictors would be installed on customers who don’t comply.
The Montecito district will hold public hearings on the measures in late February.
“We will exhaust all water at current customer consumption rates before the end of summer,” Mosby said.
Montecito did contribute to funding Santa Barbara’s desalination plant and paying maintenance costs the first time around.
Even when the desalination facility wasn’t producing a drop of water, the Montecito Water District paid $1.2 million every year for seven years, Mosby said.