Santa Barbara Drought May Get Seawater Relief

Santa Barbara, California may have a solution to its drought, which is now severe more than the one two decades ago. The city hopes to help the drought by tapping the ocean and turning the seawater into fresh water.

The $34 million desalination plant was fired up for only three months and mothballed after a miracle soaking of rain.

As the state again grapples with historic dryness, the city nicknamed the “American Riviera” has its eye on restarting the idled facility to hedge against current and future droughts.

“We were so close to running out of water during the last drought. It was frightening,” said Joshua Haggmark, interim water resources manager. “Desalination wasn’t a crazy idea back then.”

Removing salt from ocean water is not a far-out idea, but it’s no quick drought-relief option. It takes years of planning and overcoming red tape to launch a project.

Santa Barbara is uniquely positioned with a desalination plant in storage. But getting it humming again won’t be as simple as flipping a switch.

After the plant was powered down in 1992, the city sold off parts to a Saudi Arabia company. The guts remain as a time capsule — a white elephant of sorts — walled off behind a gate near the Funk Zone, a corridor of art galleries, wineries and eateries tucked between the Pacific and U.S. 101.

The city estimates that it will need $20 million in technological upgrades, a cost likely to be borne by ratepayers. Any restart would require city council approval, which won’t vote until next spring after reviewing engineering plans and drought conditions.

Santa Barbara, population 89,000, has enough water for this year and even next year by buying supplemental supplies and as long as residents continue to conserve.

While it may seem like a head-scratcher to put the plant in hibernation soon after it was built, officials said the decision saved the city millions of dollars in unnecessary operating costs.

“With the current drought likely to continue, they now appear as if they will be able to cash in on their insurance policy,” said Tom Pankratz, editor of Water Desalination Report and consultant on several other desalination projects in California.




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