California drought forces Santa Barbara to reopen mothballed desalination plant

The historic drought has forced the city of Santa Barbara to reactivate a desalination plant that has been mothballed since the late-1990s. About a dozen new desalination plants, expensive options, are also being proposed across the state.

A dozen new desalination plants being proposed to cope with the historic drought

Water desalination plant tour

7 years ago
Duration 2:09
Kim Brunhuber visits Santa Barbara's 25-year-old desalination plant with Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara's water resources manager

Walking into the old control room is like opening the "hatch" on the TV show Lost. Inside, there are dot matrix printers, floppy disks, even a tape drive. The manual for this reverse osmosis water desalination plant is dated 1993.

"This is state-of-the-art early-'90s technology here," says Santa Barbara's manager of water resources Joshua Haggmark. He points to the computer. "The hard drive in here is smaller than what's in my iPhone. So needless to say we won't be re-utilizing this this time around."

The city of Santa Barbara built the Charles E. Meyer desalination plant in the 1990s during the last long drought.

They ran it for four months. Then the drought ended, so they mothballed the plant but didn't take it apart. Just in case.

"Even though it wasn't producing water for the last 20 years, it was still an existing facility. We kept its permits up," says Santa Barbara's mayor Helen Schneider. "Because we know that drought is going to happen again. It's a cyclical thing."

That's why the city is reactivating a plant that was shut down when the last Canadian team won a Stanley Cup. They kept it for a worst-case scenario. Which is now.

"It's the four driest years of California history," Schneider says. "We are in the most exceptional drought I think we've ever experienced.

"One of our main sources of water, Lake Cachuma ... it's under 28 per cent capacity. Another water source is effectively dry. In a year and a few months, we would need the desal plant for 30 per cent of our water supply."

Cheaper than a new plant

For Santa Barbara, a coastal city of over 90,000 about 150 kilometres north of L.A., the problem is that parts of the plant are so old they can't be re-used. The filters that remove all the major particulates, for instance. And of course, as Haggmark points out, the computers.

"All of this technology will be pulled out, we'll be using more state-of-the-art technology," he says.

Some may laugh at the idea of recycling a decades-old plant, but even at $40 million US to refurbish and another $5 million a year to run, it's a lot cheaper than building a new one.

"If we had to start from scratch, find the patch of land where it could go, do all the piping behind me from scratch," Schneider says, gesturing at the kilometres of fibreglass pipes that surround her, "we'd be looking at two, three times as much to put a desal plant together."

Still, despite the high cost of building and operating desalination plants, this historic drought means that for some desiccated California communities they've become a good investment.

"These systems will work," says Bill Croyle, the drought manager of California's Department of Water Resources. "It does come down to that unit cost of water provided to the end user.

"But I think when you don't have water, the unit cost of water becomes very valuable and then those projects become more viable."

A dozen new plants 

California Governor Jerry Brown recently announced the state would provide $270 million to help build more water recycling projects. California is already evaluating more than a dozen proposed desalination plants.

"The desalination process doesn't need to be just for those large urban areas along the coast," Croyle says. "It can be used inland in various sectors to deal with critical water needs."

But for every gallon of drinking water these plants create, there is another gallon of super-salty brine water, which is piped back into the ocean and can threaten marine life.

Hence the frequent lawsuits from environmental groups hoping to stop them, notes Sarah Sikich, the vice-president of the Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay environmental group.

"Many of the desalination proposals we're seeing in California rely on what's called an open ocean intake," Sikich says. "This is basically just a pipe straight out into the ocean, and in doing so it's drawing in sea water but also all the marine life associated with that seawater."

Santa Barbara's water manager shows me a copper filter with holes the size of your average window screen.

"It will keep any significant marine life from being sucked into the tube line," Haggmark says. But Sikich says these types of screens haven't been tested in an ocean environment. And she believes even a small filter could still create big problems.

"We're concerned about the things getting stuck on that pipe," Sikich says. "So the fish eggs, the fish larvae potentially getting stuck up against those pipes, clogging it."

Santa Barbara mayor Helene Schneider has been working with council to reactivate the plant (Kim Brunhuber)

Instead, she's calling for slant wells, which run underneath the ocean and rely on water to percolate down.

Santa Barbara is studying the feasibility of this system when it awards a contract to reactivate the facility in June. Schneider says they will do what they can to minimize the environmental impact. But the city waited 25 years to re-start this, she says, it can't stop now.

"We need to be prepared," Schneider says, "so that we don't go into this crisis mode of decommissioning, recommissioning, and look long-term."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.


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