Environment & Science

​Santa Barbara reactivates seawater desalination plant

File: In this April 25, 2014 photo, Joshua Haggmark, interim resources manager for Santa Barbara, stands next to a desalination plant, which removes salt from ocean water.
File: In this April 25, 2014 photo, Joshua Haggmark, interim resources manager for Santa Barbara, stands next to a desalination plant, which removes salt from ocean water.
Alicia Chang/AP

Santa Barbara has completed a $71 million reactivation of its seawater desalination plant to bolster its water supplies.

The city is in a section of California northwest of Los Angeles that received far less precipitation than parts of the state where an extremely rainy and snowy winter brought relief after years of drought.

IDE Technologies, the company hired to revive the facility, said Wednesday that the plant will produce nearly 3 million gallons a day to meet 30 percent of the city's demand.

Santa Barbara built the plant for emergency supplies after a 1980s water crisis, but it only operated for a few months in 1992 because of abundant rainfall.

In July 2015, the City Council voted to reactivate the plant as the most recent drought lengthened and extensive water conservation measures were put in place.

A stretch of territory spanning southern Santa Barbara County, neighboring Ventura County and northern Los Angeles County ended 2016 still in the "exceptional" drought category and only recently improved to "moderate" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The improvement allowed Santa Barbara, population of 91,000, to lift some restrictions on water use — such as a ban on watering lawns — and lower conservation targets.

But officials say the city's groundwater basins are both at 30 percent of capacity and will take five to 10 years to recharge, if there is normal rainfall, so they won't be drawn upon to allow them to recover.

Supplies from the desalination plant will bolster those from Cachuma Reservoir, which is at 51 percent of capacity with nearly 99,000 acre feet of water, and Gibralter Reservoir, which is at 99 percent of capacity with 5,216 acre feet. The city also imports state water and has recycling capability.