The City of Santa Barbara plans to run the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant at full capacity for at least 36 out of the next 40 years.
The City of Santa Barbara plans to run the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant, 525 E. Yanonali St., at full capacity for at least 36 out of the next 40 years. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 on Tuesday to accept a $10 million grant — with the understanding that it will run the plant at full capacity for at least 36 out of the next 40 years.

Some environmentalists objected to the council’s decision, citing environmental concerns.

The city was awarded a $10 million matching grant in 2018 from the California Department of Water Resources for the reactivation of the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant, 525 E. Yanonali St.

The Department of Water Resources is requiring that the city run the desalination plant at full capacity for at least 36 out of the next 40 years. If the city does not comply with the terms of the funding agreement, it may be obligated to repay the grant funding — with interest — to the state.

Kira Redmond, executive director of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, objected to the city accepting the grant money.

“When the City Council decided to reactivate the plant four years ago, you repeatedly assured the public and regulatory agencies that it was a temporary emergency measure,” Redmond said.

She said the city is now obligating the ratepayers to a drastically different scenario for the next four decades “that will have major implications for the city’s future water supply portfolio for ratepayers, for the marine environment, the city’s energy usage, greenhouse gas emissions and contributions to climate change.”

Redmond also said she submitted a California Public Records Request for emails between city staff and the Department of Water Resources more than two months ago, and has not heard back from City Attorney Ariel Calonne’s office.

Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said that with climate change, it’s not likely that the city is going to be in a position where it doesn’t need the desalination plant as one source for water.

“I would hope that we would have over five years of so much water that we didn’t know what to do with it and to be in a position, where desal, we’re not relying on it,” she said. “As it stands now, our groundwater basins are not fully recharged. It would look like Cachuma is full enough and we could just turn off desal, but I think we all appreciate that it is much more complicated than that.”

Mayor Cathy Murillo supported the accepting the grant.

“I think people, too, are forgetting the drought,” Murillo said. “Maybe the pandemic has had our minds on other things. Everything was so dry and the threat of a real drought returning is real.”

The city plans to create a reserve fund to pay back the grant in the event that it does not use the desalination plant for 36 out of the next 40 years. The reserve will be funded from a Water Supply Development Fee paid to the city from the Montecito Water District, as part of its deal to use desalinated water from the city. The first payment will be made in the amount of $237,500.

Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark told the council that accepting the grant would save ratepayers money.

Without acceptance, the city would need to take a combination of actions, such as drawing down Water Fund reserves, make immediate cuts to capital infrastructure spending and increase water rates. Without the grant, a rate revenue increase up to 20 percent in one year would be necessary, he said.

No to Trucking

The City Council also approved a resolution in opposition to an ExxonMobil proposal to allow up to 70 trucks per day to transport oil from the Las Flores Canyon facility at Gaviota to sites in Santa Maria or Maricopa in Kern County. Offshore oil platforms have been shuttered since a Plains All American pipeline ruptured and caused the Refugio oil spill on May 19, 2015.

The vote was 6-0, with one abstention from Councilwoman Alejandra Gutierrez.

One of the speakers during public comment urged the City Council to stay out of it and not pass a symbolic resolution just for the sake of feeling good about themselves.

“You aren’t hurting the corporate executives and wealthy shareholders if you say no to this project,” Lopez said. “What you are hurting are the local energy workers who just want to go back to work and the local trucking companies that need contracts with trucking companies to stay afloat. Putting people out of work doesn’t seem very virtuous to me.”

Lopez said local energy jobs are good for the economy, the community and working families.

“This application allows us to use our own oil right here in California, where it is heavily regulated,” Lopez said.

Councilman Mike Jordan, however, said the risk is too great.

“We’re protecting an entire coastline of economic, environmental and community interests here from a company that, frankly, has zero history of being prepared either to take responsibility for its negative actions or mistakes or be financially responsible in that regard,” Jordan said.

Councilwoman Sneddon agreed. She said she understood that oil transportation involves real jobs, but that it is time to start creating green jobs. She said the issue should not be about jobs vs. the environment.

“It doesn’t need to be a choice between one and the other,” Sneddon said.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at