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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 3:43 pm | A Few Clouds 63º


Santa Barbara Council Approves $55 Million To Get Desalination Plant Flowing

Design/build/operate contract is fully funded by a unanimous vote, and state revolving fund loan is accepted to pay for the project

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday committed to spending another $55 million to reactivate the city’s desalination plant, which they hope will deliver water by fall of 2016.
The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday committed to spending another $55 million to reactivate the city’s desalination plant, which they hope will deliver water by fall of 2016. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara's leaders committed to spending another $55 million to reactivate the city's desalination plant, approving the extensive design/build/operate contract to get the facility ready to produce potable water by fall 2016.

It’s the last major milestone to getting the seawater-to-potable-water plant working again, after being mothballed in the 1990s.

The City Council voted unanimously to approve the contract with IDE Americas, Inc., which has built more than 400 facilities worldwide, including a 50-million-gallons-per-day plant in Carlsbad.

Santa Barbara’s plant is permitted to produce 10,000 acre-feet annually, but the city plans to start it with 3,125 acre-feet per year, which won’t cover all of the city’s water needs.

The city hasn’t talked much about the long-term plan for the desalination facility, but Mayor Helene Schneider said it will be a strategic water supply into the future.

“This desalination plant is not just about giving us water next fall,” she said.

In addition to the $46.6 million IDE Americas, Inc. contract, council members approved legal costs and consultant fees related to permitting, engineering and design work.

The city accepted a 20-year state revolving fund loan for $55 million, at 1.66 percent interest, to finance the project, with an annual debt service cost of $3.2 million.

A Santa Barbara city staff report outlines the project costs approved at Tuesday's meeting. (City of Santa Barbara photo)

The plant will be a supply that the city completely controls, Councilman Dale Francisco said in his comments supporting the plant.

Councilman Gregg Hart called it an insurance policy to make sure the city has an adequate water supply next year.

The desalination plant would pump in seawater from the open ocean intake structure, located 2,500 feet offshore, and the waste would be mixed with the discharge from El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is released 8,720 feet offshore.

The five-year operating contract with IDE will cost the city $4.1 million per year, or $1.5 million per year if the facility is put on standby mode. It will use significantly less energy than the 1991 plant, and water rates for city customers aren’t expected to increase again because of the project, water resources manager Joshua Haggmark said.

The desalination plant is permitted for up to 10,000 acre-feet per year, and the design will allow the city to expand the water production in the future, for its own use or for regional use, Haggmark said.

The Montecito Water District wants to partner with Santa Barbara on the project, and Tuesday's approval of the design/build/operate contract doesn’t close the door on that option, according to Santa Barbara city staff.  

Santa Barbara’s 1996 coastal development permit for the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is still valid, so the city didn’t have to go through another permit review — which frustrated members of the California Coastal Commission who have concerns about the open water intake. 

The reactivation doesn’t count as a new or expanded project, although the city did apply for and get approved for a repair and maintenance permit, as well as a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.

“The county is looking at reducing the safe yield from Lake Cachuma as a result of this drought and the demands for fish, which will impact the entire South Coast,” Haggmark said in an email. “We will want to weigh this impact carefully with the costs of reliability of all our other supplies.

"This drought is a game changer in water-supply planning in California.” 

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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