Will Santa Barbara’s $70 million desalination plant be worth it?

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As rain and snow storms hit much of California, the drought is becoming less severe throughout most of the state.

However, Santa Barbara and Ventura are still in the midst of what federal meteorologists describe as “extreme drought conditions.”

Now that Lake Cachuma has all but vanished, the city of Santa Barbara is preparing to turn on its new desalination plant in March. It comes with a price tag of $70 million – plus a couple extra million dollars a year to operate. So, a lot of people are wondering, especially with all the recent rain, will the desal plant be worth it?

KCRW’s Larry Perel spoke with Nick Welsh, executive editor at the Santa Barbara Independent who’s been writing about the state of the city’s water supply.

KCRW: There’s a history with this plant. Take us back to the early 1990s, when the desalination plant was first built.

Welsh: It was a very desperate time. We had had five years of a searing drought and weren’t plugged into the state water project at the time. We had what we had, and that was it.

There were two items on the ballot before voters: one was to hook up to the state water system, the other was to build a desal plant. We wound up voting for both. By the time that sucker was up and operating, we got the “Miracle March of 1991” rains and the desal plant was deemed unnecessary.

Recent measurement of the Sierra snowpack says we’re about 150 percent of normal, and reservoirs in some parts of the state are full. So, why not just make a bigger deal with the state water project? Why go forward with this desal plant?

Right, you’d think with all the water up north,the state water system would be flushed and we’d be able to get all the water we need. The problem is this – that water has to come through a straw, and that straw is capable of carrying only so much water a day. To expand the width of that straw would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. So, what we can get from up north is limited. We need to have a local supply we can depend on.

City council recently found out the cost of the desalination project is going to run $15 million over – bringing us to $70 million. How did council members react?

They were not happy. Frank Hotchkiss was uncommonly apoplectic – he was looking to sue somebody. Some of the council members wanted to put some stuff out to bid, but they were told that would slow the process down three months. And, when you have a city council that’s worried that they’re going to run out of water this summer, that’s not an attractive proposal.

Residents already saw their water bills go up a couple years ago, when the desal project got approved. Should they expect to see their water bills go up again?

Absolutely. The city of Santa Barbara has been able to dig deep into its reserves, but, the fact of the matter is, this is the most expensive water out there. Desal is so energy intensive. Imagine all the electricity that city facilities (airport, fire station, library, etc.) consume – one half of that will be consumed by the desal plant. When you look at the carbon footprint that the city is creating in all its manifestations, one half of the emissions will be from the desal plant.

What will the city do if, just like in 1991 and 1992, we get a bunch of rain, Lake Cachuma fills up and we don’t need the desal plant anymore?

It’s unlikely Cachuma will fill in that way. It could happen again, but I don’t see that happening.

When you look at the regional needs, a desalination plant will certainly be very helpful. The question is – is it so prohibitively expensive that the city can’t pursue other regional solutions which are less expensive, less environmentally questionable, and certainly more reliable than state water?