The Riggs Report: An old drought solution is new again
Santa Barbara looks to Pacific Ocean to quench its thirst
The news this week from the California Department of Water Resources is alarming, sobering and thirst-inducing. New electronic sensor surveys of the Northern Sierra snowpack on March 3 found the water content is only 16 percent of average for the date.
A manual survey performed by a state crew produced even more dismal results. It found the water content at Phillips, near Echo Summit, was only 5 percent of the historical average.
Statewide, new surveys found the water content to be 19 percent of average. The only time it’s been worse in recent years was in 1991, during California’s last extended drought, when the measurement stood at 18 percent for early March.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the city of Santa Barbara is reaching back to that same time period, and preparing to take a barely used desalination plant out of mothballs.
I visited that plant, formally known as the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant, back in 1992 to do a story on the $34 million project and the use of technology that was rare along the coast. The plant, which used reverse-osmosis procedures to turn Pacific Ocean water into drinking water, was in pilot operation stage.
At the time, Santa Barbara was in the throes of serious drought that brought rationing and dead lawns. In a place where water was always limited as a result of slow-growth politics, turning to the Pacific seemed to be the right solution.
The plant engineer proudly handed glasses of the filtered water to me and photographer John Breedlove. And, yes, it tasted and looked just like ordinary drinking water.
But Santa Barbara’s investment turned out to be premature. By the following year, drought-busting rains had arrived. The city’s gleaming new plant got sent to an extended timeout.
Now, that timeout is coming to an end.
City leaders declared a drought emergency in February of last year, alarmed by dropping water levels in local reservoirs. But it’s not like turning a tap. The city is pursuing a timetable to reopen the plant toward the end of 2016, and will spend between $32 and $40 million to do so.
The city’s ratepayers will find that is just the beginning. Desalination plants are energy-intensive and expensive to operate, meaning a jump in monthly bills.
That expense is why other cities, including Long Beach and Santa Cruz, have turned thumbs-down to the idea of desalination. Importing water, in many cases, is simply cheaper.
The City of Carlsbad, in San Diego County, has gone the other direction. They’ve given approval to an enormous desalination plant, capable of producing 50 million gallons a day, that is scheduled to open in 2016.
Is desalination an insurance policy, as California struggles with a fourth straight year of drought?
Yes, but it’s an expensive one. As Gov. Brown’s office likes to emphasize, conservation remains the cheapest drought management tool there is.