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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 10:20 pm | Fair 51º


City Opens Santa Barbara Desalination Plant to Public with Tours

The plant, which was built in the 1990s and reactivated to start operating last year, converts seawater to potable water for city customers

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Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo, right, and other City Council members get a taste of desalinated water at the city’s plant Wednesday. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

After a year of operation, Santa Barbara's reactivated Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is being opened to the public for tours of the facility and city officials celebrated the plant during a brief event Wednesday. 

A handful of elected officials and city staff visited the facility at 521 E. Yanonali St. to observe the process of turning seawater into potable water, and get-up close views of the plant’s technology. 

Members of the City Council and Water Commission also sampled the water produced by the plant. 

“Tastes delicious, everybody,” Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo said.

The tours showed off the plant and the treatment process, which includes filtering out solid matter, using reverse osmosis membranes, and otherwise getting the water supply ready to distribute to city customers.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is opening for a run of public tours on Saturday, and the available slots filled up after only a few hours of announcing them. The city will schedule more tour dates beginning in fall, according to Madeline Wood, the city’s water conservation supervisor.

The desalination plant is capable of producing 3 million gallons of drinking water a day — enough to serve roughly 30,000 people in the city of Santa Barbara, said water resources manager Joshua Haggmark.

It accounts for about 30 percent of the city’s annual potable water demand, and is providing Santa Barbara with a reliable and locally-controlled water source.

“It’s a state-of-the-art facility that’s producing incredibly high-quality water that’s helping meet the communities needs,” Haggmark said. “There’s a lot of pieces of this facility to make it work.”

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Greg Paul of IDE Americas Inc. leads a tour of Santa Barbara’s Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant on Wednesday. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Haggmark explained that Santa Barbara relies on multiple water sources including surface water (from Gibraltar Reservoir, Lake Cachuma, and the State Water Project), groundwater, recycled water, and desalination.

Customer water conservation remains important as the region enters its eighth year of drought, Murillo said.

The desalination plant was originally built in the early 1990s in response to drought, and closed when the region received abundant rainfall.

It has been a component of the city’s long-term water supply plan since 1994, and allows Santa Barbara to minimize dependencies on other water sources that are less reliable or more vulnerable to natural disaster and drought, Haggmark said.

“When we got the Montecito debris flow, the same thing happened on the other side of the mountain — all that ended up in Gibraltar (Reservoir) — we can’t fully utilize that reservoir, so this facility is absolutely critical to balance our needs,” Haggmark told Noozhawk.

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The city’s desalination plant converts seawater to potable water for Santa Barbara customers.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

In 2015, the City Council voted unanimously to reactivate its seawater-to-potable water desalination plant in response to the drought, at a cost of about $72 million.

The current facility has the capacity to produce 3,125 acre-feet of water annually, according to Ralph Felix of IDE Americas, Inc., who manages the desalination plant for Santa Barbara. 

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant came back online and has been supplying drinking water to city customers since May 2017.

How it works

Seawater is pumped into the desalination facility from 2,500 feet offshore, passing through the wedge wire screens to “minimize harm to sea life.” 

When the seawater gets to the onshore facility, it moves through a series of filters that remove sediment, viruses, bacteria and minerals, including salt.

The desalination facility uses reverse osmosis treatment, with high-pressure pumps that push water through semipermeable membranes to remove salt and minerals.

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Santa Barbara water resources manager Joshua Haggmark and city officials show off the desalination plant during a media tour Wednesday. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Water is treated and natural minerals are reintroduced to make it compatible with Santa Barbara’s other water supplies before the water is pumped into the water distribution system, Felix explained. 

As a hard hat-wearing Greg Paul, O&M Specialist at IDE Americas, Inc., narrated a tour, he said half the incoming water ends up as drinking water after the desalination process.

The other half is brine, which is about twice as salty as normal seawater. The brine is blended with the city’s treated wastewater and is discharged into the ocean about 1.5 miles offshore, Paul said.

Santa Barbara recognizes that one of the most significant concerns about desalination is its energy use, said Paul.

“Its electrical use is higher than our historical water supplies, but how does it compare to the energy used when the water reaches our homes?” Paul said during the tour.

The average home uses about 350 gallons per day, Paul said, and approximately 50 gallons is headed for indoor use like showers and doing dishes. 

“I make this point to put energy for desalinated water into perspective, and also to make the point that not only is conserving water important, but in particular reducing hot water usage at home can make a big difference in reducing your overall energy use,” Paul said.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli contributed reporting to this story.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland 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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