What you should know about Santa Barbara’s new desalination plant

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Santa Barbara has turned on its $71 million desalination plant. Once the start-up and testing phase is complete, water piped in from the ocean will begin making its way into city pipes and, finally, home faucets.

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian spoke with the city’s water resources manager Joshua Haggmark about the process.

How does it get from the sea to my faucet?

Water gets pumped through a long pipe attached to an intake valve, which sits in the ocean half a mile offshore near Stearns Wharf. Once it gets to the facility, the water is filtered to get out any sediment. Then, it enters reverse osmosis membranes. Half the water makes it through the membranes and half of it gets rejected. The water that’s rejected, which now holds all the salt, gets added to the city’s treated wastewater and is discharged about a mile and a half offshore. The water that makes it through the RO membranes gets hit with some UV light to make sure it’s completely disinfected, then minerals and chlorine are added to it. Finally, it’s pumped into the distribution system.

Seawater gets pumped through a screen like this. (City of Santa Barbara) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

How does it keep the sea life out? 

The intake valve has a screen on it, which is meant to keep significant sea life from getting pulled into the pumps. “It’s like the screen on your windows,” said Haggmark.

But, many environmentalists call the open ocean intake approach harmful and outdated. “It’ll keep larger marine life out, but microscopic marine life will get sucked through and die,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. “That’s what fish eat. That’s the base of the marine food chain.”

She wants the city to look back into alternatives, like a subsurface intake placed under the ocean floor.

How much energy will it take?

When you look at the city’s energy footprint – meaning the energy the city consumes at its airport, libraries, fire stations, etc. – half of it will be from water and wastewater. “It’s significant,” said Haggmark. “But, we’ve been enjoying what we consider ‘cheap-energy’ water, and the future of water is going to be more energy intensive.” The city is discussing how to eventually power the facility with all renewable energy, but that won’t be anytime soon.

Will my water bills go up?

According to Haggmark, maybe. “You may see small, incremental increases, but we expect we’ve got the rates almost where they need to be to support the desal,” he said.

Why turn this thing on if the state is out of the drought?

City Council voted to reactivate this plant in 2015, two years into the city’s drought. Santa Barbara’s situation is better than it was back then, but not by much. Lake Cachuma is at 50% capacity and the city’s groundwater basins is at 30% capacity. “We’ve been pushing to get this facility online so we can shut down our groundwater basin pumping and start resting the groundwater basin so it can be ready should this drought return or get worse.”

What other options are out there?

The city is considering buying a 2.5 acre property by César Chávez and Quarantina streets to start a potable reuse plant, which would turn treated wastewater into drinking water. However, Haggmark said it would take nearly a decade before you’d see “toilet to tap” water coming through your sinks.  “The state is working on regulations, and then we’d want to do a pilot program before we’d ever use it in the community,” he said.

You can check out some other options here.

(Photos courtesy of the City of Santa Barbara) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)