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Montecito Could Pursue Emergency Desalination Plant to Boost Water Supply

Montecito has no recycled water facility and depends largely on surface water for its supply, making the idea of a desalination plant tempting to some water board members and local residents, who gathered Thursday for a community meeting on the issue.

A consultant “feasibility study” looked into potential sites for a desalination facility, its seawater intake pipe and “brine” discharge line.

The Montecito Water District headquarters is one possible site, since it’s located near the existing water distribution system.

This week, consultants talked about the options of pursuing an emergency permit facility — which can start producing sooner — or a permanent facility.

Either way the facility is initially permitted, the water district would benefit from making it a permanent part of the water supply, general manager Tom Mosby said.

“Surface water supply seems to be an endangered species at the moment,” he said.

Desalination would be “critical” during a water shortage emergency and helpful to supplement the water supply during normal rainfall years, he said.

Consultants said an emergency facility is ushered through the permit process much faster and could get operating in a year, which is about two years faster than the normal process.

Usually, an agency will get the go-ahead to build an emergency facility but then be required to do the permanent permitting process during construction, said Kevin Thomas of RBF Consulting.

A member of the public noted that the state consider drinking water an emergency, but not having supplies to water rose bushes.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that the state would allow an emergency permit process but if it does, the process would go much faster, Thomas said.

Hillary Hauser of Heal the Ocean urged the water board to go a different route than independently building a facility.

She suggested that they talk to the Montecito Sanitary District about updating the master plan to include recycled water and a desalination facility, possibly at the sanitary district’s property.

The board asked Mosby and his staff to send a letter to the sanitary district to discuss it further.

Thursday’s meeting was sparsely attended compared to the previous one, but a few dozen people gathered to learn about the possible project and ask questions.

Many people are still stuck on the fact that Montecito walked away from its agreement with the Santa Barbara desalination plant. They asked the board to pursue a regional facility or get back in with the existing plant.

Montecito and Goleta contributed capital funding and bought water from Santa Barbara but never had an ownership stake in the plant, Mosby explained.

When a period of heavy rain started in 1995, people didn’t see a need for the desalination plant and Montecito relinquished all rights to the facility in 1997, he said.

Residents asked about recycled water as well. The district has studied the issue and found, in the past, that “it just didn’t pan out” financially or with the number of customers served, Mosby said.

The high estimated cost of a desalination facility — in the range of $70 million to $80 million — has given many water customers sticker shock. They expressed concerns about the project’s potential impacts on water rates and asked the board to look at other, less expensive options like recycled water, conservation programs and optimizing groundwater production.

Former Montecito Water general manager Bob Roebuck said he was very concerned about the size of the project, which is proposed to produce 2.5 million gallons of water per day, or 2,500 acre-feet per year.

The district has only about 4,500 customers, and it could drive up the costs of local water bills, he said.

While Santa Barbara’s water demand has dropped over the years, Montecito’s has increased significantly, he added, suggesting that the district implement long-term conservation programs.

The board of directors will be discussing the issue again, and likely taking some action, at its next meeting on Nov. 13, staff said.

Noozhawk news 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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