Santa Barbara to spend $55 million on desalination plant as drought 'last resort'

Santa Barbara City Council members on Tuesday unanimously approved spending $55 million to reactivate a mothballed desalination plant that could provide the city with nearly a third of its drinking water.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility was built during a drought in the 1990s but closed in 1992 when desperation for water subsided. The plant was never utilized beyond a testing period, but the city maintained it in the event that a severe water shortage might once again threaten the city.

“Desalination has been a last resort,” Mayor Helene Schneider told The Times Tuesday night after the vote. “The way the drought has continued these last four years, we are really getting at that last resort.”

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The process of reopening the plant began last September, when Lake Cachuma, the city’s main reservoir, dipped below 30% capacity. The City Council that month voted to jump-start efforts to bring the desalination plant back online.

The contract approved Tuesday includes about $46.6 million for design and construction. Additional costs come from legal and consulting fees during the permitting process. The plant is expected to be operating by fall 2016.

“We recognize it’s a big decision to make,” Schneider said. “We also recognize that desalination is not just for this particular drought -- they are cyclical.”

The city has been recognized for its water conservation efforts, with per capita water use falling several gallons below other Southern California cities.

For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno

Staff writer Amanda Covarrubias contributed to this report.


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