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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 5:45 am | Fair 46º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Construction Beginning for Santa Barbara’s Desalination Facility

Seawater-to-potable water plant will start production in October 2016 after major demolition and construction efforts at 1990s facilty site

Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, left, public works project manager Bob Roebuck and Rep. Lois Capps tour the city’s desalination plant, which officials hope to have reactiviated by October 2016.
Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, left, public works project manager Bob Roebuck and Rep. Lois Capps tour the city’s desalination plant, which officials hope to have reactiviated by October 2016. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Construction is starting on Santa Barbara’s major project to reactivate the city's desalination facility, which will start producing potable water in October 2016.

The plant will produced 3,125 acre-feet of water per year, which is about one-fourth of the city’s yearly water demand. The city could increase capacity to 7,500 acre-feet or expand it even to 10,000 acre-feet.

“If we tightened our belts, we could survive on this,” said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara during a recent tour of the facility.

It’s still possible that the Montecito Water District will partner with Santa Barbara on the project, making it a regional facility with some kind of water-sharing agreement.

The city is waiting on approval from permitting agencies before agreeing to let Montecito join up, but there is support for the idea.

During a tour of Santa Barbara’s facility, Mayor Helene Schneider said it “doesn’t make sense” to build another desalination plant a few miles down the coast.

There could be an economic benefit to partnering up, since the cost per acre-foot drops with a larger production number. It’s expected to cost $1,400 per acre-foot at the initial production level, making it much more expensive than other water supplies.

“As I say, expensive water is better than no water,” Schneider said.

Much of the existing equipment at the Santa Barbara desalination plant will have to be demolished and replaced. Click to view larger
Much of the existing equipment at the Santa Barbara desalination plant will have to be demolished and replaced. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility was built in the 1990s and briefly operated before it was put into long-term storage mode.

As the first step of construction, many portions of the current plant are being demolished and removed to make way for modern equipment. 

When it’s running again, seawater will be pumped into the facility from an offshore intake pipe, pre-treated, and put through a reverse-osmosis system to produce potable water and brine, which is twice as salty as seawater, public works project manager Bob Roebuck said.

That brine will be mixed with the wastewater treatment plant’s discharge.

Santa Barbara City Council members unanimously approved $55 million in funding for the construction, engineering and legal costs.

The contract toi design, build and operate the plant is with IDE Americas, Inc., which has constructed about 400 plants all over the world, including the 50-million-gallons-per-day facility in Carlsbad.

It will cost about $4.1 million per year to operate the plant at the 3,125 acre-foot level, Public Works Director Rebecca Bjork said.

IDE Americas, Inc. will also handle training and staffing the operations, and Bjork said there is some concern about finding qualified employees.

“It’s a hard labor market,” she said. “I hope they don’t scalp our people.”

The city is using a loan to pay for the costs, at 1.66-percent interest, and will have an annual $3.2 million debt-service cost.

City Council members increased water rates, partly as a result of desalination project costs, to help pay for the plant.

Santa Barbara plans to write a letter in support of the Drought Relief and Resilience Act, a bill co-introduced by Capps, which would provide funding for emergency water supplies and long-term investments for recycling, reuse and reclamation.

If the city can get grant funding, it could bring down the costs and prevent future water-rate increases or even allow rates to be reduced, Bjork said.

Higher utility rates have a more significant impact on low-income residents, Schneider said.  

Noozhawk managing editor 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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