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Cost of Santa Barbara Desalination Plant Jumps to $53 Million; Council Votes to Move Ahead

Out of options amid a continuing statewide drought, the city hopes to have the facility producing water by September 2016

The City of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant has been mothballed since the 1990s, and now, its parts are so old that much of it needs to be rebuilt rather than refurbished.
The City of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant has been mothballed since the 1990s, and now, its parts are so old that much of it needs to be rebuilt rather than refurbished. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Desperate and out of options, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to move forward with a plan to build a $53 million desalination plant to battle the worst California drought in recorded history.

"If Mother Nature could tell us what she had planned for us this winter, we could probably breather easier, but she can't," Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said.

The council awarded a $2.35 million contract to Carolla Construction Management and another $1.32 million to IDE Americas to complete the design.

IDE Americas has built desalination plants in Israel, Carlsbad, Hayman Island and elsewhere — more than 400 throughout 40 countries.

Crews are expected to complete design work in October. By November, they expect to start building. By September 2016, city officials hope the plant will start producing water. 

"It is going to be very critical in helping us meet our water supply needs," said Josh Haggmark, the city's water resources manager.

After years of below-average rainfall, Santa Barbara, like other cities throughout the state, is in dire straits over its water supply. 

This is the final year Santa Barbara will have an entitlement to Lake Cachuma water. Beginning Oct. 1, the city will get no new water from Cachuma. 

The city purchased 45 acre-feet of water already this year and plans to import that supply in the next few months. The city also expects to receive 600 acre-feet of state water next year.

"We have exhausted all options and are now standing before you with what we believe is our last option to meet our city needs," Haggmark said.

The city plans to take out a 20-year state revolving fund loan, at 1.66 percent interest, to finance the desalination plant. The cost of construction is about $14 million higher than most recently expected. The cost to operate the facility, however, has gone down from about $7.8 million to $3.1 million annually.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant has been mothballed since the 1990s. The city built the original facility to contend with the drought, but the heavens opened up and filled local reservoirs. Now the city is working to reactivate the facility, but the parts are so old that much of it needs to be rebuilt rather than refurbished. 

Councilman Harwood "Bendy" White said restarting the plant comes at great financial cost, but there are no other options now.

"This project is whose time has come," White said. 

Councilman Dale Francisco also supported the reactivation of the plant. He said it will bring great value to the people of this community and region.

"This is a source of water that we control," Francisco said. "The environmentalists have been very successful at diverting what has originally been intended for human use."

City staff left open the door of possibly partnering with Montecito to produce more water and use the desalination plant as somewhat of a regional facility. Montecito is interested in partnering with the city on the project. 

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina 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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