Drought: Santa Barbara to Re-Open Idle Desalination Plant

Charles Meyer Desalination Facility (City of Santa Barbara)
City of Santa Barbara

The city of Santa Barbara is planning to re-open and modernize a mothballed desalination plant in an effort to combat California’s crippling drought, now entering its fourth year.

The city is planning to spend $40 million to re-open and renovate the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility, which has sat idle since 1992. The plant will pull water from the Pacific Ocean and extract its salt using a technique known as “reverse osmosis,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The $35 million facility was constructed in the early 1990’s, in the middle of another severe drought, but closed in 1992 after heavy rains replenished the city’s reservoirs and relieved the need to keep it open. The facility reportedly never advanced past the testing stage, however maintenance teams have kept it in working order over the past two decades in the event it was needed in another drought.

And now, it is certainly needed. According to the Times, the city’s main reservoir, Lake Cachuma, sits at less than 30 percent capacity. In September, the City Council voted to reopen the plant by the fall of 2016.

However, water and desalination experts warn that reopening the plant comes with its own set of issues, not least of which is the price tag: in addition to the $40 million the city will spend to reactivate and modernize the facility, it could take approximately $5.2 million a year to keep it open. On top of that, city water customers will likely see their bills increase as a result of the hefty project.

“It has two big disadvantages,” UC Berkeley professor of resource economics Henry Vaux, Jr. told the Times. “It’s really expensive and it’s energy-intensive.”

Heather Cooley, water program director of the Pacific Institute, told the paper that because of the long process of permitting and construction needed to bring the facility online, “the drought will probably be over by the time it’s built,” not unlike what happened in 1992.

Still, if the plant is able to be recommissioned next year, it could meet about 30 percent of the city’s water demands, Santa Barbara interim water manager Joshua Haggmark told the Times.

At least one local environmental group has taken issue with the plans, claiming the facility’s intake pipes in the Pacific Ocean would suck up microorganisms and small fish, which it calls a critical part of the ocean’s ecosystem.

Santa Barbara is just one of several California cities turning to desalination plants to help mitigate the effects of severe drought; Huntington Beach, the Monterey Peninsula, and Cambria are all in various stages of building facilities, while Carlsbad, in San Diego County, will soon host the western hemisphere’s largest desalination plant. That $1 billion plant will provide 50 million gallons of drinkable water per day to San Diego residents when it comes online in 2016.


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