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Santa Barbara Council OKs $644,000 to Fund Studies for Desalination Plant Reactivation

Running the facility will cost an estimated $5 million per year, but without it, the city faces a 60 percent drop in water supplies in 2017

Santa Barbara’s desalination-facility permit is considered valid, but the California Coastal Commission and other regulatory agencies are requiring environmental studies before the city’s plant can reopen.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility has been on standby status since the mid-1990s, and needs about $30 million in upgrades (and another $1.8 in preliminary design) before it’s operational again. 

City Council members started the reactivation process in May, and on Tuesday approved spending $644,000 for additional environmental studies and specialized legal services.

There was a concern the plant’s coastal development permit would not be valid, but it appears the city will have to amend the existing permit, not start the process completely over.

Santa Barbara’s desalination facility at 525 E. Yanonali St. is designed to pump seawater through filters to catch the solid matter first, after which pure saltwater is pumped at high pressure through semi-permeable membranes to separate out potable water.

Water is pumped in from an intake pipe three-quarters of a mile offshore, then solid waste is dumped with the discharge from the El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant.

With the current schedule, the City Council would consider bids next April and the plant would come online in mid-2016.

The Coastal Commission, which issues the permit, is requiring a biological assessment of the ocean floor near the seawater intake facility, according to acting Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark.

The study will examine impacts from reinstalling the screens and pumps for the intake facility, he said.

Santa Barbara is also funding a water-quality sampling study, which is required by the California Department of Public Health, and a computer modeling study of the desalination discharge mixed with wastewater, which is being required by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

In total, the council unanimously approved $643,959 for additional desalination-related studies and legal support on Tuesday. 

Running the desalination facility will cost an estimated $5 million per year, so the City Council would prefer never restarting the plant. 

However, the city would need significantly above-average rainfall this winter to push back the schedule, Haggmark said.

“It would be a real hit to the finances of the water system,” Councilman Bendy White said.

Due to the huge amount of energy needed, the desalination facility water would also have a much higher carbon footprint than other water sources, he noted.

At the same time the city is dealing with the coastal development permit amendments, it's renewing its permit to discharge wastewater and desalination brine into the Pacific Ocean, Haggmark said.

Santa Barbara’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit allows 11 million gallons per day of wastewater from El Estero and 12.5 million gallons per day of desalination brine to be discharged, but it expires May 13, 2015.

Desalination is written into the city's drought plan, and city staff estimate that Santa Barbara will have shortages starting in 2016 without it. The city will have adequate supplies for the next water year, which starts Oct. 1, only if customers cut their use by 20 percent, according to water staff.

Without desalination, the city is looking at a 60 percent drop in available water supplies in 2017.

“That’s catastrophic for this community,” Haggmark said.

Santa Barbara has declared a Stage II drought, which includes water-use restrictions and drought water rates for utility customers.

So far, the drought water rates have raised customer bills across the board. Since July 1, when the rates took effect, customer bills have increased 3 percent for low water users, 16 percent for moderate users and 67 percent or more for high users, according to a city staff report.

Rates could increase more if desalination moves forward. As part of the reactivation plan, the City Council is studying what water rates are necessary to fund the facility’s capital and operating costs.

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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