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10 Questions: Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara Water Boss

Santa Barbara leaders decide Tuesday whether to spend $55 million to fire up a seawater desalination project that’s been idle for 23 years. Here’s why.

Written by Michelle Matus Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes

The city of Santa Barbara has taken steps to reactivate a mothballed desalination project that was put on hold following the ‘Miracle March’ rains of 1992.

The Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant has sat unused since the end of California’s last worst drought in 1992. But it has been maintained in case another epic drought hits the state.

Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, Joshua Haggmark, spoke with Water Deeply about the decision to move forward with the $55-million project.

Water Deeply: What led up to this decision to reactivate the plant?

Joshua Haggmark: Santa Barbara is really isolated when it comes to water. We live on the coastline but are separated by these 4,000-ft mountains and are in a vulnerable area when it comes to water. We get about 80 percent of our water supply from the other side of the mountains, so it has always been a problem.

During the last drought, desal was studied extensively. It was put to a vote by the voters and they approved not only the connection to the state water system, but also approved moving forward with our own desalination project. That ultimately got built in 1991, right at the tail end of the drought, and we went on to put the facility in standby. It is about $100,000 a year to keep the facility in a good state of repair until the next drought, and now, here we are.

The council took a big action June 15 of this year to keep things moving forward and, as we speak, the loan is getting finalized and we are hoping to take the whole awardto council on Tuesday, July 21.

Water Deeply: What were the conservation steps leading up to restarting the desalination plant?

Joshua Haggmark: I think our most successful program has been the green water check-ups, where we will send someone out to your house whether you live in a house or small apartment or 20 acres of agricultural property. We will spend the time necessary to help you better understand your water usage, how you might reduce your water usage and other alternatives we have available for you.

Since July of last year, we have seen a 26 percent conservation overall from the community. In May we racked up 37 percent conservation, in June it was 40 percent conservation. The community has gotten the message.

Water Deeply: What is the estimated total cost and process to reactivate desalination?

Joshua Haggmark: Fifty-five million dollars is the total. That includes all work to date from working with the regulators, Coastal Commission, regional board, the land commission, the Army Corps. I can go on with all the permits, it is just ridiculous. With all that work to date, it will be all the capital costs of construction to get it up and running and then we have even secured a five-year contract to operate the facility, whether it is in standby or full operation, we’ve got pricing for that as well. It will be about $5 million a year to run.

A good portion of the equipment on site is outdated and so the question is how much of it should be replaced. We put out a request for proposals. We received two proposals from two very specialized firms. We decided to move forward with theIDEteam.

They will be putting in the same basic treatment process, but using newer equipment. The new facility will use about 40 percent less power than the last facility, so quite a substantial change in power usage and that is also reflected in the operational cost. It is really a game changer. It is in line with a lot of our other operational costs, or, not as far out of whack as they were in the 90s. It is on par with state water, and actually, with the cost of recycled water.

Water Deeply: How is this being funded?

Joshua Haggmark: It is going to come right out of their water bill. So when they (customers) see their water bill, that’s an all-in cost. So when people look at it, they are looking at the all-in cost of getting that water to their house and also the cost of taking that water back and cleaning it up to discharge it to the ocean or using it for recycled water purposes. We have heard of some agencies dealing with large capital projects and rolling it into their property tax bill, and you know, that kind of dilutes the true cost of your water supply.

We have been working theDrinking Water State Revolving Fund. It’s this rotating funding that’s available and they prioritize projects, but basically they lend out money and then as agencies start to repay the loans, they turn around and lend it back out again. So, it’s a fantastic program and they can offer us very competitive interest rates, at 1.6 percent for 20 years.

Water Deeply: How does the desalination plant work?

Joshua Haggmark: It goes through what amounts to basically a gravel media that pulls out everything but salt. So when it gets done, all that is left is salty water; we’ve pulled out all the particulate, seaweed or anything else that is in the water.

And then, from there it goes through a cartridge filter, and that is basically to make sure that nothing else gets through but salt water. From there, it goes through these reverse osmosis membranes and this is really where all the energy is used. It puts what amounts to 700 pounds per square inch of pressure on the water to force it through the membrane.

For every gallon of potable water produced, a gallon of brine water is produced. So basically the water is twice as salty as the ocean water. The brine water then goes back across the street and is mixed with the city’s wastewater which reduces the saltiness of it and it is discharged about a mile and a half off the shore.

For the potable water that makes it through the screens: the water is treated with UV and chlorine is added to make sure that nothing grows. This is common for any water. And then the water is injected into our distribution system and from there it basically moves throughout the system.

Water Deeply: What are the long-term impacts of water intake and brine disposal on the marine environment?

Joshua Haggmark: We are going to be putting in the best available technology. It is a wedge wire screen intake, 1-mm opening, so it basically looks like the thickness of your screen on your windows. It prevents any significantly large, really any significant marine wildlife from being pulled into the process.

We are obviously going to be doing a lot of testing to see what is getting pulled in and we have agreed to study an alternative surface intake. But at this point, that is as far as we have agreed to go. We will be doing ongoing testing during operation.

One of the challenges with wastewater is it’s lighter than seawater and so you have to make sure to get it to mix in so that that wastewater doesn’t come to the surface, because it is basically saltier than the ocean water. Then on the other hand, you have the brine that we are discharging, and the issue with the brine is that it tends to be heavier than the seawater and ultimately sink to the bottom and damage marine life.

So, by blending the two, our wastewater and this brine, we actually get really close to the salinity of the ocean and then we have diffusers that, when they inject the water back into the oceans at a high velocity, cause the mixing action. And what we’ve gotten back from our experts is that they don’t believe that we will have any issue with the marine impact. So we were really pleased with that.

Water Deeply: What is the energy cost for the plant?

Joshua Haggmark: Energy, in my mind, is the biggest environmental impact. What I think is helpful is to lay out the numbers. We currently have state water from the (Sacramento-San Joaquin) Delta. A small portion of our supply comes from there and that uses about 3,200 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot. When looking at desal, it used to use, back in the ’90s, a little over 7,000 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot, and the new plant that we are looking at will use 2,400 kilowatt-hours per acre foot.

Water Deeply: When can you expect to get the first drop of water from the plant?

Joshua Haggmark: Tentatively, September of 2016. We are about a year out. The facility is permitted for 10,000 acre-feet a year. We don’t believe that we will do that at this point. So, we are starting out with about 3,000 acre-feet a year, which equates to about 3 million gallons a day. We are going to start off there, and depending on how this next winter goes, we can work out ways to increase the capacity of the facility if it is deemed necessary.

Water Deeply: What is the role of desalination if the drought ends?

Joshua Haggmark: The council has yet to make the decision on whether they will keep the facility operating after the drought, but we do have pricing for that. I do believe enough has changed in the discussion and that there is strong data supporting keeping the facility operating even after the drought.

Locally, one of the many environmental impacts that we are competing with is our surface waters. We are actually undergoing a biological opinion on Lake Cachuma that could divert more water towards that habitat restoration, and so that means less water for municipal and industrial uses. That could really be a game changer for our water supply in the future.

Instead of Cachuma being a six-year water supply, it could be more like a three-year water supply which would ultimately put us into this position more frequently. I think there is strong support to keep it operating, but ultimately it is a policy decision.

Water Deeply: Do you see desal as a way out of California’s water problems?

Joshua Haggmark: By itself, no, I don’t think it is the answer. In context to all of the other things that are going on, I think it’s just another tool, another option. It is more than what we are accustomed to spending on water, but again, put in context it is still less than a penny a gallon. It is extremely reasonable and it needs to be part of our water supply portfolio.

It does add a certain level of reliability that I think is important to have in earthquake country and in an area that is vulnerable to droughts.

Photo of Joshua Haggmark at Santa Barbara’s mothballed desalination plant. Courtesy of Associated Press / Alicia Chang

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