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Montecito Water District Headquarters Could House Desalination Plant, Consultants Say

The board hears the results of a feasibility report for expanding the area's limited water supplies but takes no action

The Montecito Water District could build a desalination facility in its own corporate yard to expand the area’s limited water supplies, a consultant firm determined in a feasibility report.

Board members want to consider building a desalination facility to provide a permanent new water source for the district, which serves Montecito and Summerland in unincorporated Santa Barbara County.

About 90 percent of the district’s supply is surface water, which makes it extremely vulnerable to drought. District officials were afraid the area would be completely out of water by summer, which is why the board implemented rationing in February.

Even though there has been “a phenomenal conservation effort by everyone,” the district will have serious problems in the 2015-16 water year, district general manager Tom Mosby said at a public meeting Wednesday.

For the current year, which started Oct. 1, the district’s water supplies are facing a 66 percent cut compared to a normal year.

To research whether a Montecito-area desalination plant was possible, RBF Consulting investigated the capacity that would be needed, possible sites for the facilities, and the potential costs and regulatory actions necessary to build it. 

Desalination plants like the one proposed use a reverse-osmosis membrane to transform seawater into potable water and a salty “brine” that’s discharged into the ocean.

Montecito faces challenges in building a desalination plant because of coastal bluffs, private property and existing infrastructure, but it's technically feasible, consultants said. 

The facility would need a 2-acre-plus site for the plant itself, a seawater intake and a discharge line. An ideal site would be 2 acres or more, within 2 miles of the coastline, far from residential areas and close to the district’s existing pipe distribution system, consultants said.

Paul Findley and Kevin Thomas of RBF Consulting presented several alternatives at Wednesday’s meeting, and the Board of Directors took no action.

This was the first presentation of the feasibility report, and the options are conceptual at this point, Mosby reminded the 180-or-so people who attended the meeting.

However, the district-owned headquarters property at 583 San Ysidro Road was presented as the site that would probably have the lowest capital cost. It’s located close to the existing pipelines, and it’s outside of the coastal zone, which clears many regulatory hurdles, Thomas said.  

Desalination projects come under heavy review with approvals required from at least a dozen different agencies, Thomas said.

The seawater intake method is “the No. 1 issue” with these projects, and the consultants said sub-surface intakes are recommended since they are the preferred method (over an open-water intake with screens) by regulators.

Findley presented several feasible options for intake points, including the former Miramar Hotel site and areas near Fernald Point, Sheffield Drive and the Santa Barbara Cemetery.

A separate line to discharge the leftover “brine” could be installed near the intake point or routed through the Montecito Sanitary District, Findley said.

Findley said the district would need a 2.5 million-gallon-per-day plant to meet the potential shortfalls in water demand, which amounts to 2,500 acre-feet of water per year. The plant could be operated at half-capacity in normal years and ramped up to full production during drought years, he said.

His firm calculated water demand at 6,300 acre-feet per year by the year 2030, with an annual supply of 5,900 acre-feet during a normal year and 2,100 during a drought year.

The alternative sites for the plant and intake lines all had similar estimated capital costs, in the range of $70-90 million, but the cost of acquiring property isn’t included in those estimates, consultants noted.

That’s a big reason the district-owned site is a desirable option, along with the “huge advantage” of being outside the coastal zone and “ideal” for permitting, Findley said.

Consultants estimated the project could be producing water by the end of 2017, giving the district three years on a “very aggressive schedule” to get it built and operating.

Members of the public asked questions at the end of the presentation, wondering how much the plant would cost to operate and where the funding would come from.

Since this is a feasibility report, there have been no decisions on how such a project would be funded, board president Darlene Bierig said.

Findley echoed her sentiments but said in typical cases, operating costs run about $1,000 per acre-foot of water including water, repairs and materials but not capital costs.

People also asked about sharing Santa Barbara’s desalination facility, which was built in the early 1990s and then placed on standby mode. The city is working toward reactivating the plant, but the Montecito Water District, which was a partner in building the facility, won’t be able to get water from it, Mosby said.

The agreement with Santa Barbara to use the plant ended in 1997 and current permits don’t designate the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant as a regional facility, he said.

The water board has scheduled another public meeting for 6 p.m. Nov. 6 at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, 1455 East Valley Road.

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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