Environment & Science

Santa Barbara to restart desalination plant due to 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.
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

Santa Barbara will spend $55 million on a desalination plant as an effort to solve its long-term drought problems.

The Santa Barbara City Council voted Tuesday to restart their desalination plant. The plant is scheduled to be running by fall 2016. The plant may bring the city some economic and environmental effects, but City Council member Cathy Murillo said the decision had to be made.

"The City Council is responsible to supply water to our residents and businesses, we really had no choice," she said. "We are in a drought emergency and people know ... we've been leading up to this for a very long time."

Murillo said the city needed to have a backup water source for when their reservoir at Lake Cachuma dries up. The lake is expected to run out of water by the end of the year, Murillo said.

The city has tried stem its water problems in the past by pumping groundwater and purchasing water from other parts of the state. 

The plant would solve some of Santa Barbara's water issues, but could also introduce other problems. Murillo said she is concerned about that the way the plant pulls water from the ocean might harm marine life. The plant's open intake system would suck in fish and other wildlife along with water. Murillo said a possible solution might look at a subsurface intake method, where sea water would be filtered through sand.

The plant is expected to expend a good deal of energy separating salt from water, which could greatly boost the amount of electricity the city uses. In addition, the plant would bring higher water rates — something Murillo said may upset residents.

Still, Murillo said the council needed to take the step for its longterm stability.

"No one knows better than someone living right here in Santa Barbara their grass is dead, they know it hasn't rained," she said. "This is one of those defining moments of a serious drought emergency."