The Santa Barbara City Council gave the green light Tuesday to begin a $122,000 study examining the logistics of rebooting Santa Barbara’s long-dormant desalination plant that can convert ocean water into drinking water.

City staff members were careful to note that the study is part of the city’s long-term water supply plan, so the approval does not mean the city has any immediate intentions of starting it back up.

The council Tuesday also unanimously approved new standards for water conservation.

One of the new standards prohibits new projects from planting turf-grass in areas with dimensions of less than 8 feet, such as medians between lanes, and the strip of grass between curbs and sidewalks (known as a parkway).

The Charles Meyer Desalination Facility, at 525 Yanonali St., was built in 1991 for $34 million — the equivalent of about $75 million in today’s dollars — after voter approval amid a five-year drought. It was constructed in less than a year, and had been in operation for just two weeks when a spell of rain finally put an end to the drought.

Officials say the main purpose of the plant, which has been off-line since 1992, is to be a backup source of water in the event of a drought. Despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s June proclamation of a state drought, the city of Santa Barbara is currently not in danger of entering into an official drought in the foreseeable future, local water officials say.

The new study will assess how long it would take to start up the plant if needed, how much it would cost and what kind of technological upgrades might be necessary. It will be conducted by Phoenix-based Carollo Engineers.

Mayor Marty Blum and Council members Iya Falcone, Dale Francisco and Roger Horton voted for the motion. Council members Helene Schneider and Das Williams opposed it. Councilman Grant House was absent.

Foremost among Williams’ concerns was energy use. The plant, he said, is an energy hog, and although Williams agrees it needs to be analyzed, he said the city should first study ways to improve water conservation.

“We shouldn’t be looking at desal and then conservation, we should be looking at conservation and then desal,” he said.

Williams cited a report stating that the city has the potential, through greater conservation measures, to save up to 2,100 acre-feet of water annually. Currently, the city uses about 15,000 acre-feet every year. The desalination plant has the capacity to provide 3,125 acre-feet yearly. An acre-foot is the volume of water sufficient to cover an acre of land to a depth of one foot.

Williams also believes that in the event of a drought, the desalination plant would end up serving the surrounding communities, and so the water agencies there should be asked to chip in for the study.

Schneider, meanwhile, favored a less expensive, scaled-down study.

The proposed study the council ultimately approved is broken down into two portions. A $74,000 phase-one study would assess the condition of the plant and investigate how much it would cost to fire it back up. A $48,000 phase two would be a more general study of the technological changes that desalination plants have undergone in recent years.

Schneider supported the idea of going ahead with just the $74,000 first phase.

“This is one step further toward turning on the switch,” she said of $122,000 study. “I want to be very careful about getting to the point where we might turn on the switch.”

Francisco countered Williams’ main concern by saying he sees no reason why studies on conservation and desalination can’t occur concurrently.

“These things are not in opposition,” he said.

He added that the city has already spent $34 million building the plant.

“We need to know what it would take to bring it back online,” he said. “There really aren’t that many people left who actually worked in the desalination plant when it was up and running. There really are a lot of mysteries out there.”

The council addressed the issue last week, but the item had to be tabled. That day, the council, with two members absent, voted 3-2 to fund the study. However, city attorney Steve Wiley pointed out that the city charter calls for a minimum of four yes votes when the item in question calls for spending taxpayer money.

On Tuesday, Williams sought to correct a notion brought up last week by Francisco, who had suggested the plant could also serve as a backup source of water in the event of a cataclysmic disaster, such as an earthquake.

Not so, said Williams, because it would take months to get it back online, whereas a major earthquake could conceivably block access to the city’s two largest water suppliers — Lake Cachuma and the Gibraltar Reservoir — immediately.

“That’s just a fantasy,” he said, adding that, in such an event, the city would turn to ground water.

Back when the desalination plant was first built in the early 1990s, the Montecito and Goleta water agencies each had a share in the project. But those agencies terminated their involvement at the end of a five-year contract.

Those two agencies’ portion of the plant, which made up a little more than half of the total capacity, was sold and shipped to a company in Saudi Arabia. (That country, incidentally, relies heavily on desalination for its drinking water.)

Bill Ferguson, the city’s water resources supervisor, said there is a misconception that Santa Barbara sold its portion to Saudi Arabia, too.

Water Conservation

Officials say the new rules on turf grass are necessary because small areas of turf tend to require too much water for such small patches. The water ends up running off into the street and down the drains.

The new guidelines apply to new projects, and to changes that are substantial enough to require approval from city design boards. These tend to include projects with multiple units, commercial projects, large houses or homes on a steep slopes, Ferguson said.

Commercial developments already are discouraged from planting turf-grass, unless they have a recreational component. In noncommercial projects, no more than 20 percent of the landscaped can be made up of turf grass.

As part of its conservation program, the city also offers free consultation on water-wise landscaping, as well as free rain sensors. The rain sensors are for people with automated sprinkler systems. When it rains, the sensors prevent the sprinklers from starting.

The new standards also significantly expand the list of drought-tolerate plants on the city’s Web site, and require rain sensors for developments in which an irrigation controller is in the plans.

Click here for more info on water conservation.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at