This seaside city thought it had the perfect solution the last time California withered in a severe drought more than two decades ago: Tap the ocean to turn salty seawater to fresh water.
The $34 million desalination plant was fired up for only three months and mothballed after a miracle soaking of rain.
As the state again grapples with historic dryness, the city nicknamed the "American Riviera" has its eye on restarting the idled facility to hedge against current and future droughts.
"We were so close to running out of water during the last drought. It was frightening," said Joshua Haggmark, interim water resources manager. "Desalination wasn't a crazy idea back then."
Removing salt from ocean water is not a far-out idea, but it's no quick drought-relief option. It takes years of planning and overcoming red tape to launch a project.
Santa Barbara is uniquely positioned with a desalination plant in storage. But getting it humming again won't be as simple as flipping a switch.
After the plant was powered down in 1992, the city sold off parts to a Saudi Arabia company. The guts remain as a time capsule — a white elephant of sorts — walled off behind a gate near the Funk Zone, a corridor of art galleries, wineries and eateries tucked between the Pacific and U.S. 101.
The city estimates that it will need $20 million in technological upgrades, a cost likely to be borne by ratepayers. Any restart would require city council approval, which won't vote until next spring after reviewing engineering plans and drought conditions.
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