By Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.

As our drinking water in Santa Barbara County’s Lake Cachuma continues to dwindle, the City of Santa Barbara continues to focus on ensuring long-term adequate water supplies for our residents during this exceptional drought. Just like when your retirement planner promotes diversifying your assets to ensure continual funding over time, so does the City’s Long-Term Water Supply Plan rely on a variety of water supply options – everything from conservation to pumping ground water, to recycling water to purchasing supplemental water to yes, desalination.

Last week, the Santa Barbara City Council unanimously voted to award a contract to build and operate our current desalination facility that has been offline for over twenty years. This decision was taken very seriously. We fully understand the high cost to reactivate the plant, the energy use to power it and the potential environmental impacts it could present. We also know that no water is worse than expensive water, and desalination is a last resort. As we have now experienced the driest four-year period on record, we have reached this last resort.

Our prudent planning has worked. The City purchased more than 7,000 acre-feet of supplemental water and constructed two new water wells to boost groundwater capacity.  We are about to complete the rehabilitation of our recycled water plant and our community has reached over 25% in water conservation. I applaud Santa Barbara city residents, who are among the top-5 water conservers in the State of California.

We’re facing the challenge of negligible inflow to Lake Cachuma, diminishing State Water allocations, and higher temperatures which have not only reduced lake supplies due to more rapid evaporation, and but also increased water demands of trees and plants. Looking forward and assuming continued drought, we expect no water entitlement from Lake Cachuma (for the first time in history), minimal allocation of State Water, diminished groundwater supplies, and a statewide water market that is no longer viable.  For the 2017 water year, the projected available supplies are less than half of our normal demand.

Reactivation of the City’s desalination plant would provide capacity to produce 3,125 acre-feet per year starting Fall 2016, meeting nearly 30% of our current demand (after meeting the 25% conservation reduction).  Construction and permitting costs are estimated at $55 million, and thanks to achieving a low 1.6% interest State loan, operating costs are about ½ of original estimates, at $2-3 million per year.

What these costs mean for a single family residential customer with low water use (400 Cubic Feet or ~3,000 gallons per month) is a total increase of $12.95 per month, with $9.18 of that for desalination costs. For a moderate user the increase will be $29.91 per month, with a desalination portion of $18.38, and a high user will see an increase of $120.79 per month, with $59.62 for desalination.

Why not pursue more aggressive conservation instead?  We are. Conservation is always the first and a major component of our water supply plan.  During normal years the City promotes increasing efficiency of indoor and outdoor water use through many rebates and programs. Since the end of the last drought, potable demand has reduced by over 20% per capita compared to the late 1980s. Residents are already meeting aggressive goals that will now increase under the Stage Three declaration. Given the efficiencies already achieved, conservation alone cannot fill the projected deficiency of more that 50% in 2017, without significant impacts on the community. We welcome and look forward to our continued work towards new and expanded technologies that will capture storm water discharges and recycled water to increase the amount of water recharging our ground water basins.

Regarding environmental issues, modern technology and energy recovery systems will be incorporated into the reactivated plant, which are expected to reduce energy consumption by about 40% compared to the original installation, bringing the amount close what it takes to deliver State Water to the South Coast. The original ocean intake screens will be replaced with the best available screen technology, with openings of just one millimeter (about the thickness of a paper clip). Brine discharge from the desalination plant will be diluted with treated wastewater from the City’s sewage treatment plant before being discharged a mile and a half offshore.

Finally, we’ve also been hearing a lot about an impending strong El Nino this winter that could bring significant rain to our region. I sincerely hope it does. Still, Mother Nature is not giving us her full forecast, as even strong El Nino patterns do not necessarily result in significant precipitation; of the last six strong El Ninos on record, only two produced above average rainfall. This desalination plant provides a smart, long-term solution that will grant us an independent and sustainable water source.

One day, this exceptional drought will end, to be followed by another one in the future. These weather patterns are cyclical. It’s time for us to discuss what the role of desalinated water should be in the long term, and on a regional basis. There’s no need for other regional agencies to spend tens of millions of dollars on creating their own desalination plant if we can work in partnership with them and our statewide regulatory agencies in devising a long-term water supply management plan throughout Santa Barbara’s south coast.

Reactivating the desalination plant would be a major step for the City of Santa Barbara, with many aspects to consider. It is a long-term investment to our overall infrastructure that is now necessary given the severity of our current drought and the opportunity for regional cooperation. We are fortunate to have this option available to us.

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MayorHeleneSchneiderSchneider was elected to her second term as Santa Barbara mayor in November 2013. She has served at Santa Barbara City Hall since January 2004, winning her first election as City Council member in 2003 and first election as mayor in 2009.