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Montecito Water District Starts Environmental Review Process for Desalination Facility

The Montecito Water District is starting the environmental review process for a new seawater-to-potable water desalination plant, and the board directed consultants and staff to study a 3 million-gallons-per-day facility.  

The move solidifies the Montecito Water District’s plan for its own, permanent facility, but the Tuesday vote came during the same meeting in which the Board of Directors directed staff to keep pursuing a partnership with the City of Santa Barbara’s existing desalination facility, which is in the process of becoming operational again after years of standby mode.

Santa Barbara is moving forward with its design and construction plans under the assumption that the facility will serve only city customers, but Montecito wants to make it a regional facility and get a piece of the water production.

A recent letter from City Administrator Paul Casey tells Montecito that the city would consider making it a regional plant with written support from state regulatory agencies, since Santa Barbara doesn’t want its current permits or timetable impacted.

“Once Montecito Water District has secured written assurance from the permitting agencies to the city expressing the agencies’ interest in having the city supply water to Montecito Water District it will be appropriate for me to place this item on the council agenda for direction,” Casey wrote.

Santa Barbara’s facility has a permitted capacity of 7,500 acre-feet per year — which doesn’t cover all of the city’s water needs — and the City Council is expected to soon fund a construction contract for the $53 million project.

On the pathway considering an independent desalination plant, Montecito is studying a facility with the maximum capacity of 3 million gallons per day, which could produce more than 3,000 acre-feet per year.

The number will be used for environmental review and cost estimates, according to district staff. The current plan is to build the facility on the water district site at 583 San Ysidro Road with an intake subseafloor drain system built offshore of the Santa Barbara Cemetery.  

In the worst-case water supply scenario, the district will need to get a plant running in early 2017 — that’s if the district is getting essentially no surface water from Lake Cachuma or Jameson Lake, no groundwater and no rain this coming winter, district staff said. Normally, Montecito gets 90 percent of its supplies from surface water — lakes and reservoirs.

The plant could be built to handle 2 million gallons per day be expanded to 3 million gallons per day capacity as needed, they noted.

There aren’t cost estimates for what a partnership with Santa Barbara would cost Montecito, and the latest estimates for a standalone Montecito facility was issued in October at $70 million to $80 million for capital costs.

Former board member Darlene Bierig, who recently resigned from the post to write her dissertation, warned the board that the assumptions could be “too rosy” and district demand could increase with community growth and customers moving to district water from private wells or water trucks.  

The board unanimously voted to pursue a desalination plant with a maximum capacity of 3 million gallons per day and authorized general manager Tom Mosby to file a California Environmental Quality Act notice of preparation, which starts the review process and public comment period for the project.

Part of the decision not to pursue a larger facility was based on perception — the district wants its project to be a size that can stay under the radar and not become a lightening rod for desalination opponents, consultants and staff admitted at Tuesday’s meeting.

A 4 million-gallons-per-day project would provide more water than the current demand, consultants noted. 

In June, district customers used an average of 3.3 million gallons per day. 

Montecito water customers have made major cuts in water consumption, but those cuts are based on high residential water use before 2014. In March, a year after rationing was implemented, the state ordered Montecito to make 36 percent cuts in water use, and the district reported using 228.9 gallons per person per day. The district serves 13,500 people.

In April, the most recent data reported to the state, Montecito used 183.8 residential gallons per person per day, with residential use making up 73 percent of the district’s total water use. That’s with more than 90 percent of people staying under their rationing amounts.

In comparison, Santa Barbara used 65.7 residential gallons per person per-day for April, with a much larger customer base of 93,091 people served, according to state conservation data.

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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