While other cities are discussing the idea, Santa Barbara has a possible ace in its back pocket. They commissioned a desalination plant during a drought two decades ago.

There are some issues to overcome. After it was shuttered three months in, the city began selling parts of the $34 million facility to a company in Saudi Arabia. The shell remains, and now Santa Barbara is discussing setting it back up as an answer to this drought and future ones. The 1992 officials should have used a little foresight and figured more droughts would come.

To restart the plant, the city estimates that $20 million will be needed for technological upgrades. The money would come from taxpayers, and any move to fix the plant would require city council approval. That should be the easy part, even though the city has enough water for this year and next if residents conserve. The city also resides in a desert, so there is the pragmatism of that fact.

Santa Barbara isn’t the only one looking to the sea for water. Cambria, a city in central California has approved an emergency desalination plan that could be up and running as soon as July. The city is dangerously close to running out of water.

The issue of desalination in the United States is faced with extreme regulatory hurdles. Environmentalists see the idea as a last resort due to its energy requirements and the possibility of sucking marine life into the plant. They could always go the dehydration route. Building major metro areas in what amounts to a desert was always going to present issues.

They want other options to be explored before opting for desalination. The California Coastal Protection Network has said that people have a knee jerk reaction to drought. Or, they want their communities to be viable for residents. Can’t have it both ways.

The plant is Santa Barbara is a relic technology wise. A recent tour showed what was once a state of the art control room. Bulky desktops with CRT monitors and floppy disk drives.

What California needs now is a multi-pronged answer to this drought and future ones. Ignoring the the sea as an answer to appease environmentalists would be a mistake. The drought has been unprecedented, and forecasts show it will get worse before it turns the corner. Why not have the insurance policy of desalination plants for today and tomorrow.


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