The 90s are back: Aged desalination plant gets dusted off in Santa Barbara

Written by
Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant in Santa Barbara hasn’t seen use in over two decades, but that might change soon. According to the city’s Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark, the plant is crucial for Santa Barbara to survive the drought.

“I don’t think desalination should be our only source of water, but in California I think it should be a small portion of the water supply. At least one that you can rely on and meets the health and safety needs of your community,” says Haggmark.

Contractors have submitted their proposals to refurbish the plant, and the city council will decide in June whether to proceed with the $40 million project. KCRW got a look at the desalination plant recently, and learned what it will mean for the community and the environment to turn it back on.

“The plant was built in the 90s, and they want to use that 90s technology, but it’s not the 90s. That’s what we’re concerned about,” says Kira Redmond, executive director of the water watchdog organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

The plant has been sitting downtown, on Yanonali St, ever since 1991. It cost the city $35 million and provided water for four months in 1992, but has laid dormant ever since. This February, the California Coastal Commission reluctantly agreed that Santa Barbara’s 1996 coastal development permit was still valid. Since then, the city has been moving forward with their updates while still using outdated technology, such as an open ocean intake.

Buttons like these have been untouched since the plant was built in 1991 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

This will sit right on the ocean floor, 30 feet below the water’s surface. Haggmark doubts environmentalists, like Redmond, who say the intake will harm marine life by sucking up fish, fish eggs or microorganisms.

“Given the low productivity of that area, I don’t know if that’s a critical concern,” says Haggmark. “Plus, the velocity going into the screens are going to be lower than ambient currents in the ocean. But, we’ll be doing sampling to see how much is being pulled into the screens.”

Redmond is not so sure.

“Yes, the city is planning on putting a fine mesh screen there and sucking it in on a lesser velocity, but it is going to have an impact on marine life. Unfortunately, the city has never studied what those impacts will be,” she says.

And herein lies the major problem. The City is in such a hurry  to get the plant up and running (Haggmark guesses the city will be declaring a Stage Three Drought as soon as May), environmental studies are being put off. After winning the right to keep their permits from the 90s, the city was basically granted the right to disregard any new regulations that are being forced upon new desalination plants.

They don’t have to do a site-specific marine life study. They don’t have to do an Environmental Impact Report. They don’t have to transition from an open ocean intake to a subsurface intake.

To ensure that the city will study desalination alternatives, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper asked the Regional Water Quality Control Board to require it of them.

“We’re saying go ahead, turn it on if you need to quickly with the ocean intake, but start now with the feasibility study of subsurface intake, so once the drought is over or the study is done, they can transition to it,” says Redmond.

One thing both Haggmark and Redmond agree on – studying the feasibility of indirect potable reuse, the treatment wastewater to drinking water standards.

“When you think about what we’re doing. We’re taking fresh water to flush our toilets, we’re dumping it out into the ocean, and then we’re sucking it back up and taking the salt out of it to drink it. I mean, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Both are taking notes from the Orance County Water District, who use recycled water technology. “We would love to see Santa Barbara do that,” says Redmond.

But, all that will have to wait. The conclusion of that feasibility study isn’t due until July 2017, and the city is moving forward with desalination via open ocean intake now. Currently, three proposals are on the table from contractors vying for the chance to restart the plant. Once the contractor is chosen, Haggmark and his team will present the proposal to city council in June. If approved, the desalination plant will be up and running in 15 months, pumping water from the ocean starting in the fall of 2016.

Taxpayers will see effects, however, much sooner than that. Water bills will begin to rise this summer. Haggmark predicts a $20 monthly increase for the average user’s water bill. Redmond guesses it will be closer to $30 a month. She’s especially concerned about low income households. “They’ll have to pay it, too,” she says.

Find out what lessons California is taking from Israel’s desalination planning.