May 7 2014
Desal Plant for Sale….Whoops!
As the drought in California heads for another dry summer, the city of Santa Barbara, CA is about to restart a long abandoned desalination facility. Up the coast a few miles from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara has enjoyed high quality water from the Santa Ynez Mountains. They have not had to import water like their southern neighbors.
When I wrote Water Shock, I did not realize how prescient I really was. In the book, one of the hydrologists, Barry, is talking about how he became interested in hydrology.
“Actually, that very thing was the genesis of my interest in hydrology. From an engineering perspective, Santa Barbara is a fascinating place. Some farsighted folks a hundred years ago envisioned the need to be water independent during a severe drought. They even planned and built a desalination plant, but when it was considered ‘too expensive,’ the plant was dismantled and shipped to Qatar in the Middle East. [Not bad forecasting, I just missed the destination by a few hundred miles]The city’s plant was designed to accommodate a capacity of up to ten thousand acre-feet on two-point-one acres of land, including both the main pump station and the chemical treatment area.i They got most of their water from reservoirs in the mountains above the town, but the Great Drought wiped them out. They were never dependent upon the Colorado and the Delta like the rest of Southern California.”
In an AP story on May 5th, Alicia Chang reported on the desal plant I wrote about above, and interestingly she said, “After the plant was powered down in 1992, the city sold off parts to a Saudi Arabia company. The guts remain as a time capsule—a white elephant of sorts—walled off behind a gate near the Funk Zone, a corridor of art galleries, wineries and eateries tucked between the Pacific and U S 101.”
What I find really interesting, and mystifying at the same time is why Santa Barbara does not consider potable recycling. This seaside city of 89,000 brings high quality water from their primary reservoir, Lake Cachuma, treats it, uses it once and after treating half of it for irrigation recycling, dumps the rest into Pacific Ocean.
Has no one considered potable recycling? The environmental issues with desal are high hurdles to overcome as those who persisted and found at the Carlsbad, CA desal facility, the largest desal plant in the Western Hemisphere which is under construction.
Alicia Chang, in concluding paragraphs quotes Susan Jordan, executive director of the California Coastal Protection Network based in Santa Barbara, “Other options should be exhausted before you start putting a straw into the ocean. People tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to drought.”
Based on what I know from the environmental studies that resulted in significant delays for the Carlsbad desal plant, Santa Barbara will be lucky if they get the Coastal Commission to issue permits by 2020.
If my crystal ball in Water Shock becomes reality, and the Great Drought destroys their primary water source, they may wish they had considered potable recycling. It doesn’t even take 20/20 hindsight to see that this is a huge possibility. What will the level of Lake Cachuma be then?
54, City of Santa Barbara Water Department, “The Charles Meyer Desalination Facility,” Santa Barbara, CA http://www.santabarbaraca.gov/Government/Departments/PW/DesalSum.htm, accessed 2011.
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