With the California drought continuing, officials are looking at a last resort option in Santa Barbara. City Council members approved a $55 million project to renovate the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility, which they hope could provide one-third of the city’s drinking water. According to the Los Angeles Times, the plant was built in the early 1990s during a drought, but never made it past the testing period when the rain returned.
“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.”
There are downsides to desalination that keep it from being a preferred solution in California’s dry times. Turning to the ocean as a water source for cities is energy intensive and expensive, and the environmental costs are not entirely known.
South of Santa Barbara, construction on a Carlsbad, California, desalination plant is well underway. The 10-mile pipeline that connects that plant to the San Diego County Water Authority’s distribution system was completed last month. According to KPBS:
The $1 billion desalination facility is expected to begin delivering water this fall, pending approval from state regulators. Once production is fully ramped up, the plant will convert seawater into around 50 million gallons a day of potable water.
The Santa Barbara plant is expected to open in Fall 2016, but it closed once before, and some are questioning whether the expensive project will be for naught if conditions improve. Schneider is unsure but thinks desalination is not just for this particular drought.
“That’s a conversation we need to have and have not had yet,” she told the Orange County Register. “What is the role of desalination without drought?”
Jenn Stanley is a freelance journalist, essayist and independent producer living in Chicago. She has an M.S. from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.