Thirsty Santa Bar­bara looks again to the sea

Af­ter Cal­i­for­nia’s last ma­jor drought, the city shelved its de­sali­na­tion plant. Now it plans to restart it.

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY DARRYL FEARS darryl.fears@wash­post.com

santa bar­bara, calif. — The slum­ber­ing de­sali­na­tion plant that rests off the Ven­tura Free­way in a seedy area called the Funk Zone might one day be the an­swer to this coastal city’s des­per­ate need for wa­ter.

But for now, it’s the butt of a small joke.

When a group of visi­tors ar­rived to in­spect the plant’s aban­doned con­trol room re­cently, they found an eerie scene: yel­lowed desk­top com­put­ers with cath­oderay-tube screens and a dusty dot ma­trix printer that hadn’t been used in nearly two decades. The air was stale, and their voices echoed off the bare walls.

“They said it re­minded them of the Dharma Ini­tia­tive” from “Lost,” said Joshua Hag­gmark, the city’s wa­ter re­sources man­ager. On the fic­tional TV show, sur­vivors of an air­plane crash dis­cover the out­dated tech­nol­ogy of a re­search group in an old bunker.

In Santa Bar­bara, the Charles E. Meyer De­sali­na­tion Plant has sat in limbo since 1992, when it was cranked up for test­ing and quickly shut down when the rain sud­denly re­turned. With Cal­i­for­nia parched again, city of­fi­cials want to bring the plant back to life to turn mil­lions of gal­lons of ocean wa­ter a day into fresh, drink­able wa­ter.

But the cost is rais­ing con­cerns through­out this coastal com­mu­nity. The plant cost $34 mil­lion to build and would cost $50 mil­lion to restart and $5 mil­lion a year to run. Op­po­nents warn that the process, which in­volves pulling ocean wa­ter through a pipe, could kill un­told num­bers of fish eggs and tiny marine or­gan­isms.

Each side of the de­bate ac­cuses the other of be­ing fool­hardy. Crit­ics of a restart, mostly con­ser­va­tion-minded en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, say city of­fi­cials were too quick to em­brace a so­lu­tion that can dis­turb the ocean’s ecol­ogy while re­leas­ing co­pi­ous amounts of green­house gases re­sult­ing from the plant’s heavy re­liance on elec­tric­ity. Less-in­tru­sive steps to max­i­mize the wa­ter sup­ply, such as cap­tur­ing rain­wa­ter, should be tried first, they say. Be­sides, they add, the drought could end at any time.

“De­sali­na­tion is the most en­vi­ron­men­tally harm­ful and ex­pen­sive source of wa­ter there is,” said Kira Red­mond, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Santa Bar­bara Chan­nel­keeper, a non­profit en­vi­ron­men­tal group that fo­cuses on wa­ter is­sues.

“I don’t know why peo­ple don’t think the same thing won’t hap­pen again,” she said, re­fer­ring to 1992, when the fa­cil­ity was closed be­fore pro­duc­ing a drop of wa­ter.

Sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing city of­fi­cials and some res­i­dents, say Santa Bar­bara needs more wa­ter now and in­sist that Cal­i­for­nia can­not pos­si­bly cap­ture enough rain­wa­ter to cope with the most se­vere drought the state has ever faced. The city of 90,000 has cut its wa­ter use by more than 35 per­cent, of­fi­cials say.

“We just need to be pre­pared,” says He­lene Sch­nei­der, the city’s mayor. With lev­els reach­ing record lows at two reser­voirs that pro­vide its potable wa­ter, Santa Bar­bara could ex­pe­ri­ence a se­vere short­age as soon as next year, she said, adding, “It takes 12 to 15 months to recom­mis­sion the plant.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal risks De­sali­na­tion, which is used from Is­rael to Aus­tralia, isn’t new. The United States has at least 200 plants, in­clud­ing nearly 150 in Florida that pro­duce more than 500 mil­lion gal­lons of fresh wa­ter each day.

In Cal­i­for­nia, where cities are in­creas­ingly des­per­ate as the drought drags into its fourth year, 21 plants are op­er­at­ing, and 17 are pro­posed, ac­cord­ing to the Pa­cific In­sti­tute, a re­search group based in Oak­land. San Diego is putting the fin­ish­ing touches on a $1 bil­lion plant, which will be the largest in the Western Hemi­sphere.

In Santa Bar­bara, of­fi­cials are hop­ing to restart their plant next year so it can pro­vide the city with 30 per­cent of its wa­ter sup­ply by 2017. A pipe would ex­tend three­quar­ters of a mile into the Pa­cific Ocean and draw in about 7 mil­lion gal­lons a day.

The salt, al­gae, sea­weed and de­bris in the wa­ter would be re­moved by fil­tra­tion. The un­wanted sep­a­rated ma­te­rial — brine mixed with treated waste­water — would be dis­patched back to the ocean through a sec­ond, 8,700-foot-long pipe. Small holes in the last 600 feet of the pipe would al­low the brine to seep back into the sea over a large area, dif­fus­ing the high-salin­ity waste.

Crit­ics such as Chan­nel­keeper and the Cal­i­for­nia Coastal Pro­tec­tion Net­work say there has not been enough scru­tiny of the im­pact of the plant on the coast about a mile from the Stearns Wharf, where sea­wa­ter will be sucked in and waste brine pumped out. Pulling enor­mous vol­umes of salt wa­ter from the Pa­cific and spit­ting back saltier brine, they say, is likely to kill mil­lions of fish eggs at the start of the process and pos­si­bly dam­age the ecol­ogy at the end.

More­over, op­po­nents say, re­mov­ing salt from ocean wa­ter re­quires ma­jor power con­sump­tion; elec­tric­ity ac­counts for as much as half of the cost of op­er­at­ing a plant. The re­sult­ing green­house-gas emis­sions are so high that de­sali­na­tion plants are re­quired to ag­gres­sively seek ways to off­set the car­bon out­put.

Be­fore re­sort­ing to de­sali­na­tion, said Red­mond of Chan­nel­keeper, city of­fi­cials should be more ag­gres­sive about wa­ter con­ser­va­tion. “There are lots of things the city could be do­ing, like build­ing a stormwa­ter-cap­ture sys­tem,” she said.

City of­fi­cials such as Hag­gmark counter that a fine strainer will guard against fish and their eggs be­ing swept into the in­take pipe of the de­sali­na­tion plant. The city took great care in de­sign­ing the plant to min­i­mize the dis­charge, he said, adding that var­i­ous meth­ods to off­set car­bon emis­sions are al­ready be­ing sought.

Re­search on the im­pact of de­sali­na­tion is mixed. A 2010 study by the Univer­sity of New South Wales in Aus­tralia found that “de­sali­na­tion plants may ad­versely im­pact the ecol­ogy of marine ecosys­tems.” How­ever, the study said, the harm can be re­duced by di­lut­ing the brine, which the city plans on do­ing.

Last month, the Santa Bar­bara City Coun­cil voted to spend about $4 mil­lion on the plant’s re­design, the first step in bring­ing it back online.

An op­por­tu­nity missed

Mon­tecito, an un­in­cor­po­rated com­mu­nity, is en­vi­ously watch­ing neigh­bor­ing Santa Bar­bara’s ef­fort to restart de­sali­na­tion.

In Mon­tecito, where talk-show stars Oprah Win­frey and Ellen DeGeneres main­tain huge es­tates, there’s enough wa­ter to last only another two years, said Thomas Mosby, gen­eral man­ager of the Mon­tecito Wa­ter Dis­trict. Un­like Santa Bar­bara, Mon­tecito has no ground­wa­ter to rely on for part of its sup­ply.

Dur­ing the drought from 1987 to 1992, the wa­ter dis­trict en­tered into an agree­ment with Santa Bar­bara to ac­quire wa­ter from the de­sali­na­tion plant. The con­tract money paid half the cost of build­ing the plant, Mosby said. But when rain re­turned in the March Mir­a­cle of ’92, the dis­trict walked away, wash­ing its hands of the ef­fort.

Although Santa Bar­bara shut down the plant, it pur­sued the re­quired state op­er­at­ing per­mits just in case of another drought. Mon­tecito did noth­ing.

Now, as its wa­ter sup­ply dwin­dles, Mon­tecito is alone. Of­fi­cials there asked the state whether they could part­ner with Santa Bar­bara again, but the re­quest was de­nied be­cause Mon­tecito lacked per­mits.

Mon­tecito Wa­ter Dis­trict has only a few op­tions left: take steps to build its own de­sali­na­tion plant for about $100 mil­lion; hope the state takes pity and grants it a waiver to join Santa Bar­bara and avert a catas­tro­phe; or pray for rain.

“They did the right thing,” Mosby said of Santa Bar­bara.

Turn­ing to cre­ativ­ity

Santa Bar­bara res­i­dent Nancy Black is not so sure. “I re­mem­ber when they opened this plant years ago,” she said. “Many peo­ple felt they were swin­dled in that deal.”

Black thinks the city and state should ag­gres­sively pur­sue cap­tur­ing and us­ing rain­wa­ter, as she has done at her house, a three­bed­room, two-bath, mid-cen­tury mod­ern on a third of an acre.

Although Santa Bar­bara al­lows the lit­tle rain it gets to drain into the Pa­cific Ocean, Black, who writes a syn­di­cated astrology col­umn for news­pa­pers, spent about $3,000 to cap­ture any wa­ter that falls on her prop­erty with gut­ters and di­rect it to av­o­cado, ap­ple, or­ange and le­mon trees.

“It’s not very ex­pen­sive to do,” she said. A basin filled with mulch soaks rain­wa­ter and holds it like a sponge. “It’s a lit­tle oa­sis. I have a fab­u­lous gar­den.” Black paid another $1,000 to col­lect her shower wa­ter to ir­ri­gate plants and for house­hold chores.

“We’ve cut our wa­ter use dra­mat­i­cally,” to 50 gal­lons per day for her fam­ily of four from about 250 per day, she said. Ahouse­hold of the same size in Los An­ge­les uses an av­er­age of 350 gal­lons per day.

That suc­cess hasn’t con­vinced most of Black’s neigh­bors, who are re­luc­tantly pin­ning their hopes on de­sali­na­tion, she said. “In the com­mu­nity I live in, it’s re­ally cool to have a green lawn, and it’s, like, [for­get] ev­ery­one.”

Un­like some other cities, Santa Bar­bara has not re­stricted the wa­ter­ing of grass to two days a week. “We tried that,” Hag­gmark said. “Peo­ple way over-wa­tered their yards on those days. It was a dis­as­ter.”

As a soft morn­ing rain fell around the de­sali­na­tion plant she vis­ited on a re­cent Tues­day, Sch­nei­der’s lips curved into a wry half smile. “This,” said the city’s mayor, “is such a tease.”

It was a re­minder of why de­sali­na­tion was shelved two decades ago. Could the same thing hap­pen to the $50 mil­lion ef­fort to restart the plant if the drought sud­denly ends?

“That’s a con­ver­sa­tion we need to have and have not had yet,” she said. “What is the role of de­sali­na­tion with­out drought?”

GRE­GORY BULL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A worker moves among some of the 2,000 pres­sure ves­sels to be used to turn sea­wa­ter into fresh wa­ter by re­verse os­mo­sis in theWesternHemi­sphere’s largest de­sali­na­tion plant, be­ing built in Carlsbad, Calif.

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