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City Council May Consider Expanding Santa Barbara Desalination Plant Soon After It Opens

Potable water production now expected for February or March 2017

Santa Barbara’s desalination plant isn’t even operating yet and the city’s talking about expanding it.

Construction on the desalination plant is ongoing, with most offshore work — including new pumps, intake screens and pipes — expected to finish by mid-December.

Testing the facility by pumping in seawater for several weeks is necessary to build up the biofilm on filtering media, water resources manager Joshua Haggmark noted.

The city now hopes to start producing potable water from the plant in February or March.

The project, whose contract completion date was Oct. 4, has already seen significant delays, like the discovery of contaminated soil at the facility site.

Santa Barbara is looking into the costs of expanding the capacity of the 3,125-acre-feet-per-year plant and may start that process soon after the facility starts production.

Expansion is partially motivated by a water sales agreement in the works with the Montecito Water District.

The deal isn’t final, but Montecito wants to purchase 1,250 acre-feet of water every year, and Santa Barbara would decide the source of the water. In dry years, it would be from the desalination plant, city staff says.

The good news is that most of the necessary infrastructure will already be in place for an expansion — including pumps and pipeline capacity — but it would still cost a significant amount, Haggmark said during Thursday’s Water Commission meeting.

That’s on top of the $55-million-plus already paid to “restart” the plant, which was more of a complete overhaul for the outdated facility. The plant was built in the 1990s but never used because it rained.

Water Supply Update

Lake Cachuma is expected to be empty by the end of December.

During the current drought, which Santa Barbara County water officials have called the “new worst,” the water level is down to 7.5 percent of capacity.

Water levels dropped too low to be pumped into the intake tower, so a pumping barge was built and then moved into a deeper section of the lake.

The only incoming water nowadays is from the State Water Project and supplemental purchased water, which all comes in through the Central Coast Water Authority pipeline near Bradbury Dam.

Water levels are getting almost too low to even use the pumping barge, and design has started for a pipeline extension to directly connect the CCWA pipeline to the barge — skipping the lake altogether.

“It looks like we may actually need to start construction before next winter” and get the conveyance pipeline operating by spring of 2018, Haggmark told the Water Commission.

The reservoir is the major water supplier for all of southern Santa Barbara County and, with predictions of a below-average-rainfall winter, water agencies are planning for more of the worst.

The City of Santa Barbara has seen conservation of 36 percent as a 12-month-average, but plans to increase that to 40 percent.

The City Council will decide on a lawn-watering ban at its Dec. 6 meeting, part of the latest set of regulations aimed at boosting conservation.

There will be exemptions for playing fields at schools, public parks and golf course putting greens and tees, and certified water-wise grasses. Other customers can apply for exemptions, like businesses that have an event space with a lawn.

Unlike the neighboring Goleta Water District, Santa Barbara hasn’t stopped new development during the drought, and water commissioners said it’s a public relations problem.

Dust control and other construction water uses don’t employ a large volume of water, but it’s a high-profile use, staff said. The commission asked city staff to bring up development as part of the conversation on the lawn-watering ban and new regulations at the City Council meeting.

Going into another winter, hoping for rain, Santa Barbara’s Gibraltar Reservoir is empty, at 0 percent of capacity.

The watershed will probably need 10 inches of rain before there’s any runoff, Haggmark said.

He said the groundwater basins have maybe two years of pumping left in them, since all eight wells are in production and the basins are at about 30 percent of capacity.

Recycled water has not been as reliable a supply for the city in recent years.

A $13.5-million project to replace the filtration membranes took months longer than expected, and cost more, because of a design mistake and the wrong equipment ordered by the contractor, the city has said.

The plant didn’t produce as much water as designed after it was completed, an issue on which the city is still working with contractors.

Councilman Bendy White told the Water Commission that the City Council met in closed session to discuss legal issues surrounding the plant.

“Obviously, the city is not happy with the performance,” he said.

As of Thursday, the recycled water plant was out of service because of filter feed piping cracking, according to Haggmark.

The city is repairing the pipe and expects the plant to start producing water again in December.

Demand has dropped with cooler weather, but the city still asked its customers — mainly parks — to cut back, as they did when the plant was offline during the replacement project.

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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