With California’s water supply about to run out, Santa Barbara is taking steps to reactivate a desalination plant that’s been in mothballs since 1992.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the plant — built more than 20 years ago during another severe drought —was never used beyond a test phase before steady rain began falling. Now, officials are working to quickly get the plant back online as the city’s reservoirs continue to diminish.
Experts say that California will run out of water in 2016.
Santa Barbara will spend up to $40 million to modernize and reactivate the plant, which was closed in 1992. It is among a number of desalting projects being considered along the California coast, including in Huntington Beach, and Monterey Peninsula. The nation’s largest desalination plant is currently being built in Carlsbad, California.
Although the Pacific Ocean looks like a natural solution to California’s water crisis, experts say a stampede toward desalination is unlikely.
“It has two big disadvantages: It’s really expensive and it’s energy-intensive,” said Henry Vaux Jr., a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of resource economics who contributed to a 2008 National Research Council report on desalination.
“Given the time it takes to come up with a plant, including permitting and construction, the drought will probably be over by the time it’s built,” said Heather Cooley, water program director of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research on natural resources.
That’s what happened in Santa Barbara in the early 1990s, when construction began on the $35-million plant. At that time, communities were so desperate for water, Ventura even proposed towing icebergs down the coast from Alaska to provide some relief. State experts said that idea was quickly discarded.
Heavy rains came nine months later, before Santa Barbara’s desalination plant was finished, and the plant was never used beyond the test phase. But the city kept up its maintenance schedule over the last two decades, with the idea that it could be brought online again in another drought.
That time arrived last September when the city’s main reservoir, Lake Cachuma, fell to less than 30% capacity and the city tightened restrictions on water use to encourage conservation. The City Council voted unanimously to pursue reopening the plant in the fall of 2016.
“The council policy was to use desalination as an absolutely last resort, and this is a last resort,” Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said in an interview.
The plant would produce enough water to make up about 30% of Santa Barbara’s demand, said Joshua Haggmark, the interim water resources manager.
Desalinated water will cost about a third more than Santa Barbara’s imported water. In addition to the estimated $40 million it will take to reopen the plant, it could cost $5.2 million a year to keep it running.
That means water users will likely see a significant increase in their water bills when the costs are passed on to consumers.
The Santa Barbara plant will produce fresh water through reverse osmosis, a process that separates salts and contaminants from seawater by forcing it through sand filters and tightly coiled synthetic membranes. The salt is returned to the ocean as brine.