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Drought Forces Santa Barbara To Reopen Desalination Plant

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Santa Barbara is taking a last resort approach to the drought by reopening a long-idle desalination plant.

The Santa Barbara City Council unanimously voted last night to reactivate the mothballed plant, which could provide the city with one-third of its drinking water from the ocean. The city plans to spend $55 million to modernize and reactivate the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility, according to the L.A. Times. The plant was built in the 1990s, but closed it in 1992 when steady rain returned. As the city's reservoirs continue to diminish during our current severe drought, now seems like a pretty good time to get the plant running again.

The plan to reopen the plant started last year when the water level at the city's main reservoir, Lake Cachuma, dipped below 30%. Now $46.6 million will go towards design and construction to make the plant operational again, while the rest of the money will go towards legal and consulting fees. Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider explains the Hail Mary move, "Desalination has been a last resort. The way the drought has continued these last four years, we are really getting at that last resort."

The Santa Barbara plant will join other facilities along the coast in turning brackish water into the drinkable sort, some of which are currently operating while others are in the works. Further north a plant in Cambria began operating in November and the nation's largest plant is now being built in Carlsbad. Others are being considered in Huntington Beach and the Monterey Peninsula, according to the L.A. Times.

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And while turning to the Pacific Ocean to solve all of our drought problems may seem like a magic bullet, experts caution that desalination presents considerable challenges. Henry Vaux, Jr., a U.C. Berkeley professor emeritus of resource economics who has studied desalination, says, "It has two big disadvantages: it's really expensive and it's energy-intensive." Some of the expense is passed on to monthly water bills, which in Santa Barbara could increase from $78 to $108 for an average household. Environmentalists also worry about the impact on marine life by sucking up microorganisms, fish eggs and plankton into intake pipes.

But given the ongoing water shortages, Santa Barbara officials see the plant as an important part of fighting the drought. Schneider explains, "We recognize it's a big decision to make. We also recognize that desalination is not just for this particular drought—they are cyclical."