Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Leaders table talks over desalination plant study

BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

After discussing the merits of studying what it would take to get the city’s desalination plant up and running again, Santa Barbara city leaders were forced to table the matter until next week due to a lack of a sufficient majority.
While Mayor Marty Blum joined Councilmembers Roger Horton and Dale Francisco to vote in favor of going forward with the $122,000 study, their three ayes fell short of the four-vote majority needed.

Councilmembers Helene Schneider and Das Williams voted against the proposal to examine rehabilitating the facility, which converts seawater into drinking water, while Councilmembers Iya Falcone and Grant House were absent.
Although the council will be taking the issue up next week, city leaders in attendance at Tuesday's meeting made it clear where they fall on the issue.
“It is fiscally irresponsible for us to keep something like this in mothballs and not know how much it would cost to bring this out in an emergency,” Blum said.
While nobody on the council spoke in favor of bringing the desalination facility online for any reason other than a severe drought or catastrophic emergency, some expressed concern that the city was heading in the wrong direction with the study.
Calling the study premature, Williams said a larger focus should be placed on conservation and recycled water programs.
“Desal has huge problems, not the least of which being its cost and not the least of which being its energy usage,” he said.
Bill Ferguson, the city’s water supply supervisor, made it a point to note the city has no current plans to reactivate the facility. The earliest it might be needed, he said, would be in the event of a severe drought that drains Lake Cachuma in the next four to five years.
Built in the early 90’s as a response to the severe drought of the late 80s, the Charles Meyer Desalination Facility has been relegated to storage mode for the past 10 years.
With adequate rainfall stocking the city’s primary sources of water — Lake Cachuma and Gibraltar Reservoir — the city decided to decommission the facility and remove components that require frequent maintenance.
The study proposes examining the current condition of the plant, rehabilitation costs, and regulatory issues, in addition to determining how long it would take to get the facility operational.
Ferguson said that information would be used to update the city’s current long-term water supply plan.
“This is one of a number of studies planned in support of the Plan Santa Barbara process and the Long Term Water Supply Program update process,” he said.
Other studies are expected to involve recycled water expansion, water conservation updates, climate change impacts, state water reliability, groundwater modeling and water demand.
Ferguson said desalination is primarily considered an emergency drought supply. It’s also an option should a catastrophic emergency occur, he said, such as a loss of the Sacramento delta or earthquake damage to supply tunnels from Gibraltar Reservoir or Lake Cachuma.
“It’s an investment in our infrastructure and it’s a potential use that we want to take an account of,” he said.
But Williams said the city shouldn’t even look at the desalination plant until a drought is on the horizon.
“We have many emergency backup supplies,” he said. “We have groundwater, we have Gibraltar, we have Cachuma.”
He also expressed concerns about the potential increase in growth should the city augment its current water supply with an additional 3,125 acre-feet per year, the output capacity of the desalination facility.
However, Francisco argued that the study is a separate issue from the policy decision of where the city gets its water and how much it uses.
“We do need basic knowledge of what it would take to bring the desal plant back online and how long it would take so we are prepared for an emergency,” he said. “…It seems to me that we would be derelict in our duties if we didn’t take that into consideration.”
Schneider, on the other hand, expressed concern about the breakdown of the study, which is divided into two phases.
The first phase would involve an initial investigation of the facility, regulatory issues, cost estimates and a timeline, Ferguson said. That phase is expected to cost $74,000.
“We expect that they’ll find components that need further analysis,” Ferguson said.
Therefore, an additional $48,000 has been set aside for a more in-depth look at mechanical systems, he said, in addition to a surface-level look at advancements in desalination technology.
If the study had been parsed into separate approval processes, rather than a single approval for the full $122,000 amount, Schneider said she would be more inclined to approve the initial phase.
Since the item involves an allocation of city funds, the council needed at least four votes in favor to approve the study, causing the 3-2 vote to fail. Ultimately the council voted 4-1 to continue the matter until next week, with Williams dissenting.

1 comment:

David Pritchett said...

"However, Francisco argued that the study is a separate issue from the policy decision of where the city gets its water and how much it uses."

WISHFUL THINKING FOR THIS SEPARATION OF POLICIES

The City is not going to study in that complex level of detail but not eventually use this facility that allows new water for new urban development.