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Santa Barbara Inches Toward $40 Million Reactivation of Desalination Plant

Proposed rate increases would generate revenue needed to restart the facility, helping the city diversify its water resources amid the ongoing drought

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to move forward with a plan to raise water rates to generate $40 million to reactive the city's desalination plant

The drought conditions remain essentially the same, even after the recent rains.

"We have received no measurable runoffs into our supply at this time," said Joshua Haggmark, water resources manager.

Rates would go up about by about $10 for those who use the least amount of water and as much as $102 for the those who use the largest amounts of water. The rate increase also factors in a loss of revenue from the targeted 20 percent reduction in use.

If approved, the proposed rate increase would go into place on July 1 of this year.

The city plans to send notices of the proposed rate increases later this month, hold a public hearing on March 10, then vote on the increases on March 17. 

Santa Barbara’s desalination facility at 525 E. Yanonali St. is designed to turn seawater into drinkable potable water through a complex, expensive process. 

The city built the plant after a period of severe drought from 1986 to 1991, but decommissioned the plant after heavy rains in 1991.The reverse-osmosis membranes and other equipment must be replaced to make the facility functional again.

The city has also applied for a Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund loan to pay for the capital costs of reactivating the plant, but it will not know the result of the application until after March 17, when it needs to adopt the rate increase.

The city expects that it will cost about $5 million annually for full production and about $2.5 million when the plant is in standby mode. 

Santa Barbara resident Scott MacIver said he supports the city's efforts to diversify its water sources.

"We need to pursue the reactivation of the desalination plant even if it means increased water rates," the San Roque resident said. "Our water supply is unreliable. We are going to need more water than nature supplies."

MacIver said he is water conscious at his home. Half of his front lawn is grass, but the other half consists of mulch and plants on a drip system. MacIver has artificial grass in his backyard. 

"We keep building and growing and our water supply is diminishing," MacIver said. 

Robb Kirschke, a Santa Barbara resident who owns Evershade Steam Cleaning and Power Washing, said he supports rate increases to bring in more water. He participated in the city's landscaping rebate program. He put in artificial turf and gravel for a rebate of up to $1,000. He has no grass in the front or back of his house, only drought tolerant, native plants. 

"I think the desalination plant should be up and running," Kirschke said. 

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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