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Santa Barbara Will Negotiate with Montecito for Regional Use of Desalination Plant

City Council unanimously votes to start discussions for the plant which is under construction on schedule to produce potable water next fall

The Santa Barbara City Council agreed to start negotiating with the Montecito Water District to make the desalination plant a regional facility, producing potable water for both agencies.
The Santa Barbara City Council agreed to start negotiating with the Montecito Water District to make the desalination plant a regional facility, producing potable water for both agencies.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The city of Santa Barbara agreed to start discussing a partnership with the Montecito Water District for the desalination plant currently being constructed, which will start producing potable water in October 2016.

Montecito has long been asking to join the project and even suspended planning work on building its own plant, but Santa Barbara didn’t want to jeopardize its permit approvals from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board or California Coastal Commission.

With the OK from regulatory agencies, Santa Barbara staff will start talking to Montecito about making the desalination plant a regional facility, public works director Rebecca Bjork said.

“You bet I’m relieved,” Montecito Water general manager Tom Mosby said in an email.

Santa Barbara City Council members approved $55 million in funding to get the plant online and producing 3,125 acre-feet of water, which represents about one-fourth of the city’s current water demand.

The desalination plant has the capacity to go up to 7,500 acre-feet per year, or 10,000 with more construction.

“We’ve looked at our own, we don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense to have our pipes and your pipes two miles apart running into the ocean,” Montecito Water District board president Dick Shaikewitz said.

Montecito doesn’t have much groundwater, so it would want to use the desalination plant all the time, not just during drought years, he added.

Public works project manager Bob Roebuck shows trailers of reverse-osmosis membranes that will be used for Santa Barbara’s desalination facility. Click to view larger
Public works project manager Bob Roebuck shows trailers of reverse-osmosis membranes that will be used for Santa Barbara’s desalination facility.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The cost of water per-acre-foot decreases with a higher-capacity plant, another reason there’s interest in making it a regional facility. It’s estimated to cost $1.4 million per year to operate the plant at the 3,125 acre-foot level.

The Santa Barbara City Council unanimously agreed to send a letter to Montecito to start negotiations. It’s unclear if there will be a contract, joint powers agreement or other partnership, Bjork said.

If Montecito wants to start getting desalinated water next fall, when Santa Barbara’s plant starts producing, the city will need to know quickly in case capacity needs to be expanded.

The district does want a long-term commitment and continuous production, and Mosby said they want an availability between 1,500 and 1,750 acre-feet per year.

“Everything is up for discussion,” he said.

Mayor Helene Schneider and councilmen Gregg Hart and Bendy White will serve on a council ad-hoc committee dealing with the regional desalination agreement.

“The first question is, they have 3,125 acre feet and if that is all they have, how much of that are they willing to let us have?” Shaikewitz said after the meeting.

Montecito also doesn’t know what the water demand will be once the drought is over, he said.

“We’re trying to come up with a number but it’s a wild guess.”

Noozhawk managing 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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