SANTA BARBARA, Calif.—California’s four-year drought is putting a new spotlight on a plentiful but costly water alternative: ocean water, minus the salt.
This Southern California beach city may spend up to $40 million to update and reactivate a desalination plant it mothballed after another drought ended about 24 years ago.
With its local reservoirs at less than 30% of capacity, the City Council voted in September to pursue reopening the facility, which can turn sea water into the equal of nearly three-fourths of Santa Barbara’s normal demand for drinkable water.
While desalinated water will cost about a third more than the city’s imported freshwater supplies, Mayor Helene Schneider said other options, including more conservation, have been exhausted for the city of 90,000.
“It should be the source of last resort—and the reality is we are getting to that place of last resort,” Ms. Schneider said.
Desalination is widely used in other parts of the world, including the Middle East, but has been slower to catch on in the U.S. One reason: It takes a great deal of electricity to separate the salt from water, making the process unattractive for communities that have cheaper sources.
In California, desalination commonly takes place by a process called reverse osmosis, which entails running ocean water through permeable membranes to separate out salt. The salt is returned to the ocean as a brine solution.
Poseidon Water, a Boston company that develops water systems, is using $1 billion in private financing to construct a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif. It aims to provide the San Diego County Water Authority with about 8% of its water, at a cost up to twice that of water the agency imports from northern California.
Israeli-based IDE Technologies will operate the facility under contract with Poseidon.
With no end in sight for the drought, more communities are looking to desalination. The Orange County Water District in January voted to negotiate to buy water from another $1 billion Poseidon plant, to be built in Huntington Beach, Calif., pending final permits.
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