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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 1:14 pm | Fair 67º


Santa Barbara Rejects Subsurface Water Intake For Desalination Plant

The city of Santa Barbara won’t pursue a subsurface ocean intake for its desalination plant after a study revealed that the process would either be infeasible or fail to meet the city’s needs.

Like most desalination plants, the city’s plant has an open water intake pipe in the ocean, but environmentalists say that process kills microorganisms and other sea life.

In response to the concerns, the city commissioned a study to evaluate six different ways to extract water through a subsurface — from the seabed — process.

According to the study, all of them came up short in some way, determined to be unable to produce the planned amount of water or had major design and construction challenges.

The study was a mandatory condition of the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which was issued by the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The California Coastal Commission also had concerns about the current intake system, but had no opportunity to require a change since Santa Barbara’s 1996 coastal development permit for the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is still valid, so the city did not go through another coastal development permit review for the current reactivation. 

Kira Redmond, executive director of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, blasted the study’s findings, blatantly stating that the city only took part in the study to appease environmental groups.

She said she is extremely disappointed and that the open-intake process would kill “trillions of organisms.”

The city should study a lesser, more realistic amount of water that could be pulled from the subsurface intake, she told the City Council at Tuesday’s meeting. 

The city based its study on a feasibility baseline of 10,000 acre-feet of water and the current plant is designed to produce 3,125 acre-feet of potable water each year. 

“This study is disingenuous and it is flawed,” Redmond said.

While cities often use open-intake systems because they are typically less expensive and can be installed in most locations with few construction complications, open intake also has a 100-percent kill rate for microorganisms and small fish trapped in the system. 

Several members of the City Council took offense to Redmond’s attacks.

“I don’t appreciate the innuendo about how this is being disingenuous,” Councilman Harwood “​Bendy” White said.  

“This is not disingenuous. This is hard work, difficult work being done in the midst of the crisis.”

White praised Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark for his commitment to studying the alternatives. 

“Not much is going right and you are in the hot seat,” White said. “And I appreciate your work and your tenacity to pull this all together.”

Councilman Frank Hotchkiss was also put off by Redmond’s comments.

“It is unfair to try to cast a negative light on this,” Hotchkiss said. “Keep going, we’re behind you,” he told Haggmark. 

Councilwoman Cathy Murillo seemed to defend Redmond’s position. 

“Unless we do something different we will be destroying marine life,” Murillo said. 

She agreed that the city should look at an amount of water less than 10,000 acre-feet. She also said she felt rushed by the Mayor Helene Schneider during the meeting. 

“I don’t appreciate that we are rushing through this because it is such a big topic,” Murillo said. “I am uncomfortable with this.”

Schneider said that the study revealed important information. When the drought is over, Schneider said, the city will need to have the conversation about the role of the desalination plant and the alternative source study will be helpful at that time. 

“I don’t see this as the end of the process,” Schneider said.  

Councilman Gregg Hart put the matter in a broader perspective, saying the city needs to activate the desalination plant as soon as possible. 

“There’s a real difficult reality check of what is feasible versus what is theoretically possible,” Hart said. “We’re doing the best we can and moving forward the fastest we can.”

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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