Santa Barbara OKs US$644k desalination study funding

US city, Santa Barbara, has approved US$ 644,000 to fund studies needed before its dormant desalination plant can reopen. Without the plant the city faces a potential water supply crisis.

The Charles E. Meyer desalination facility has been on standby status since the mid- 1990s, and needs about US$ 30 million in upgrades before it's operational again.  Running the facility will cost an estimated US$ 5 million per year, but without it, the city faces a 60% drop in water supplies.

Santa Barbara has already declared a Stage II drought, which includes water-use restrictions and drought water rates for utility customers.

Desalination is written into the city's drought plan. Without it, the council has estimated that Santa Barbara will have shortages starting in 2016. The city will have adequate supplies for the next water year, which starts October 1, 2014 only if customers cut their use by 20%, according to council figures.

The council's recently approved funding is to cover the costs of environmental studies required by the California Coastal Commission and other regulatory agencies before the plant can reopen. It also covers specialized legal services.

With the current schedule, the city council would consider bids next April and the plant would come online in mid-2016.

The Coastal Commission is requiring a biological assessment of the ocean floor near the seawater intake for the reverse osmosis plant, according to Santa Barbara's acting water resources manager Joshua Haggmark. The study will examine impacts from reinstalling the screens and pumps for the intake facility, he said.

Santa Barbara is also funding a water-quality sampling study, which is required by the California Department of Public Health. Solid waste from the plant would be dumped with the discharge from the El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant. A computer modeling study of the desalination discharge mixed with wastewater is required by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

At the same time the city is dealing with the coastal development permit amendments, it is renewing its permit to discharge wastewater and desalination brine into the Pacific Ocean, Haggmark said.

Santa Barbara's national pollutant discharge elimination system permit allows 55 Ml/d of wastewater from El Estero and 12.5 Ml/d of desalination brine to be discharged, but it expires in May 2015.

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