Desalination is one of the most expensive, energy-intensive and environmentally harmful water supply options available, but that didn’t stop the Santa Barbara City Council from unanimously voting to restart a little-used plant that was mothballed in 1992.
The decision was made just hours after a storm dropped an inch of rain on the city, giving everyone pause. The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant was built during a fierce drought between 1986 and 1991 and then put in standby mode after just four months when the rains returned.
But the $34-million plant, which was paid off long ago, has never been far from resident thoughts. On Tuesday, the council agreed to spend another $55 million to bring the plant back online by 2016. The plant could provide around 30% of the city’s water needs.
Operation of the plant will add $10-$20 to utility bills each month, but council members expressed a willingness to pay that even if giant El Niño storm systems bring heavy, sustained rain to the area, as many climatologists cautiously predict. “This drought will end one day,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “But there will be another drought another day.”
The Santa Barbara Independent said all the council members were conflicted over the plant, some citing environmental issues. Just about nobody denies those problems are substantial and can only be mitigated at best, not eliminated. But like a lot of environmental concerns in the Age of Drought, they tend to be obscured or overwhelmed by other considerations.
On average, desalination plants take in two gallons of seawater for every gallon of fresh water produced. The environmental impact varies depending on the type of system used, but, in general, millions of sea creatures are sucked into saltwater intake valves and chemically-infused concentrated brine is returned to the ocean. The plants use an ungodly amount of electricity and pump out a lot of greenhouse gases.
Some of the obvious ill effects of desalination are known, but much is unknown because, according to a 2011 study by the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, there has been no “comprehensive monitoring and evaluation of the surrounding ecosystems.”
Now California will get a chance to flesh out the body of knowledge. Communities in the state have toyed with desalination for decades, and at one time more than 21 active proposals to build plants were in the pipeline. About 15 or so are still kicking around. But few have been built until now.
A $1-bllion plant in Carlsbad, the largest plant in the Western Hemisphere, is due open in November and another Southern California plant in Huntington Beach is close to gaining approval. The Carlsbad plant would provide around 50 million gallons of water a day to San Diego County, satisfying about one-tenth of its needs.