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Santa Barbara Council Starts Reactivation Process for Desalination Plant

The city approves contracts for preliminary design services, specialty legal support and lobbying services totaling $935,628

Worried about another dry year, the Santa Barbara City Council has started the reactivation process for its desalination plant.

The city approved contracts Tuesday for preliminary design services, specialty legal support and lobbying services at a cost of $935,628.

Reactivating the facility is part of the city’s long-term drought plan, and at the earliest it could be operational by summer 2016, said Joshua Haggmark, the acting water resources manager.

The total cost for reactivation is around $28.75 million, and the city most likely will look to grants and loans for capital costs.

The timeline for the project calls for the City Council to make another decision in the fall — whether to pursue a design, build and operate contract — and then go out to bid next April, Haggmark said, adding that if the next winter brings more rain, the city could push that decision off another year or more.

The Charles Mayer Desalination Plant at 525 E. Yanonali St. was built in 1991 as a temporary facility to deal with the 1986-91 drought. Right after being completed, the “Miracle March” rains filled up local reservoirs and the plant was put into long-term storage mode.

It uses a reverse-osmosis design that pumps seawater through filters to catch the solid matter, and then pure seawater is pumped at high pressure through semi-permeable membranes to separate out the drinking water. Seawater is pumped from an intake station three-quarters of a mile offshore, and there’s a question of whether that system will be allowed now, decades after the last permits were issued.

The energy required makes it the most expensive source of city water, with operating costs estimated at $5 million per year. Even at full capacity — which the facility was never tested for — it would only supply about half of the city’s current water use. The Montecito Water District, the Goleta Water District and Santa Barbara partnered up to build the plant in the 1990s, and Montecito wants in again. The district is already rationing its residents and cracking down on outdoor irrigation.

Santa Barbara wants lobbying services to help with the California Coastal Commission permitting processes in this project since it’s a “charged issue” with no specific guidelines, Haggmark said.

“We’re not desalination experts. This isn’t something the city walks around doing,” he said, adding that Santa Barbara will be at a disadvantage without these experts when staff members go to Sacramento meetings with regulatory agencies.

Even if the city gets all the State Water Project water delivered it was promised, the city will have a shortfall without more rainfall, Public Works Director Rebecca Bjork said. Desalination is a crucial part of the city’s six-year drought plan because in year seven, there will be no groundwater left, she said.

Speakers from two environmental groups told the City Council to be cautious about moving forward.

Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network, has spent 15 years studying desalination and has spent the last several years fighting the Poseidon Water desalination facility proposed for Huntington Beach. Poseidon has to study subsurface water intake now instead of the open-water intake methods for pumping seawater into the facility, Jordan said.

She believes the city should also study alternatives for intake, since the Santa Barbara facility used the open-water intake in the 1990s. They city will need a new coastal development permit from the California Coastal Commission, too, she said.

The open-water intake harms sea life, especially fish eggs and larvae that get killed on the screens, said Conner Everts of the Southern California Watershed Alliance. He said there aren’t any large-scale working desalination plants in California now since as soon as it rains, they become a “stranded asset” again.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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