January 29, 2019

Channelkeeper Executive Director Kira Redmond’s Testimony before Santa Barbara City Council on the City’s Plans to Expand the Desalination Plant

“Good afternoon Mayor and Councilmembers, I’m Kira Redmond with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. Channelkeeper has urged the City since it began to consider reactivating the desal plant to first fully exhaust other less expensive and less environmentally harmful water supply options, including recycled water, stormwater capture and enhanced conservation and efficiency – which it has not done – before resorting to desal. Then, if desal was still absolutely necessary to meet any remaining shortfall in supply, we urged the City to use the best technologies available today to minimize the significant environmental harm it causes.

Our concerns about desal, beyond the exorbitantly high cost, are 1) the extremely high energy-intensity of desal compared to all other water supply sources, and 2) the significant adverse impacts on the marine environment caused by both the intake of seawater and the discharge of concentrated brine and other chemical byproducts back into the ocean.

Operation of Santa Barbara’s desal plant at its current capacity has single-handedly increased the City’s energy use by more than 50%. In the current age of a rapidly warming climate, this is exactly the wrong direction the City should be going, and it violates commitments the city has made to reduce its carbon footprint.

The other major problem with the City’s desal plant is its use of outmoded open ocean intakes, which according to the city’s own albeit ancient studies, suck in and kill TRILLIONS of marine organisms EVERY DAY. The State Water Board has been working for more than 20 years to get rid of open ocean intakes because of the massive marine life mortality they cause, first in coastal power plants and now in desal plants. The State Board passed a desal policy in 2015 requiring all new and expanded desal plants in California to utilize best available technology, which they defined as subsurface intakes, to minimize marine life mortality unless thoroughly proven to be infeasible. Subsurface intakes virtually eliminate the enormous death toll to marine life caused by open ocean intakes, even those with small mesh screens like what the City’s has, while also requiring less energy and fewer chemical inputs.

Unfortunately, rather than upgrading the intake to best available technology, Santa Barbara spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to hire lawyers and lobbyists to make sure it would be grandfathered out of the policy’s requirements. And let’s be clear: an open ocean intake with a screen over it is NOT Best Available Technology, and for the City to continue telling the public it is is just flat out wrong.

Channelkeeper convinced the Regional Water Board to require the City to conduct studies analyzing the feasibility of both subsurface intakes as well as potable reuse as alternatives to the open ocean intake. Unfortunately, however, the City’s consultants were instructed to define “feasible” as capable of producing at least 10,000 AFY of water – more than three times the actual amount the plant was recommissioned to produce. As a result, these environmentally superior alternatives were deemed infeasible. I strongly encourage you, particularly the new councilmembers, to closely review those studies now. When you do, you’ll see that many different types of subsurface intakes would in reality likely be capable of producing at least 5,000 AFY.

With the City charging ahead to expand the capacity of its desal plant by 60% to provide water to Montecito, we KNOW this will result in a massive increase in cost, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and death toll on marine life. Channelkeeper therefore calls on you to find a way to power the plant with 100% renewable energy, to undertake an honest, legitimate assessment of the feasibility of converting, in whole or in part, to subsurface intakes and/or potable reuse, and to make a firm commitment to do so if feasible along with the expansion, as required by state law. We also call on the City to conduct a full Environmental Impact Report and associated public review and input process to assess and appropriately mitigate the significant adverse environmental impacts that will result from the expansion of the desal plant.

It is only right for the city celebrated as the birthplace of the environmental movement to do everything it can to reduce the massive environmental impacts that are already being caused by your desal plant and that will increase significantly more when it is expanded. Thank you.”