The City of Santa Barbara is turning its sights on an old seawater desalination plant to tackle California’s worsening drought and limited water supplies. According to Mayor Helene Schneider, the city is willing to spend more than $40 million to reactivate a mothballed seawater desalination plant that opened in 1992 and shut down after just three months of operation. Desalination is the “very last resort,” says Schneider. "We know it's a very big decision to take—and yet at the same time we've done everything we could with our other water supply options."
Sourcing the city’s drinking water from the Pacific comes with a steep price tag. Saltwater desalination is expected to cost close to five times as much as the city’s current reservoir water due mainly to massive energy requirements. The high operating cost is due to the inefficiency of the process - for every two units of water that enter the plant, only one leaves as potable water. The remaining unit is a brine waste. Despite the cost and environmental concerns, many more cities in California are turning to desalination.
For nearly $1 billion, Carlsbad, CA is in the process of building the largest seawater desalination plant in the United States. Cambria, CA, opened a brackish water desalination plant late last year and a unit of the American Water Works is in preliminary stages of construction on a brackish water desalination plant in the town of Marina. Dozens other California utilities are turning to desalination as the answer their water demands, whether sourcing water from the Pacific Ocean or using brackish groundwater or salty surface water.
For Santa Barbara’s reactivation, the city would restart two pumps located nearly half mile off the coast to bring seawater ashore for treatment. Santa Barbara has spent roughly $100,000 per year on keeping permits up to date for the facility since the plant was closed in the mid 1990s. The active permitting will allow for faster start up of the plant - about twelve to fifteen months. According to Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, the plant will eventually have the capacity to meet the water demands for the entire city. With the water shortage only expected to get worse, perhaps desalination with its high operating costs is the only feasible solution left for California.