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California Drought: Santa Barbara considering activating desal plant

In this April 25, 2014 photo, Joshua Haggmark, interim resources manager for Santa Barbara, Calif., stands next to a desalination plant, which removes salt from ocean water, in Santa Barbara, Calif.  The city is considering restarting the plant as California withers in a drought.
In this April 25, 2014 photo, Joshua Haggmark, interim resources manager for Santa Barbara, Calif., stands next to a desalination plant, which removes salt from ocean water, in Santa Barbara, Calif. The city is considering restarting the plant as California withers in a drought.
Alicia Chang/AP

With California in a drought, the coastal city of Santa Barbara is thinking about firing up a desalination plant that has been in storage for more than two decades.

The city built the plant in the 1990s during the last drought but turned it on for only three months after heavy rains eliminated the need for extra water.

Desalination involves removing salt from ocean water or groundwater, but it's not a quick drought-relief option. It takes years of planning and overcoming red tape to launch a project.

Water officials estimate the plant will need $20 million in technological upgrades. Any restart would require City Council approval, which won't vote until next spring after reviewing engineering plans and the latest drought conditions.

Many environmentalists think desalination should be a last resort.