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Charles Meyer Desalination Plant

Project Status

The City’s Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant is in long-term standby mode and is not currently producing drinking water for the City. The City constructed the reverse osmosis seawater desalination facility as an emergency water supply in response to the severe drought from 1986 to 1991. In 1996 the City obtained a Coastal Development Permit for the facility to meet regional drought needs and for baseline operation during non-drought periods. Due to sufficient freshwater supplies since 1991, the facility remains in long-term standby mode for reactivation within two years.  It is expected to be reactivated only when water supply demand cannot be met using all other available supplies including extraordinary water conservation.

After three years of below average rainfall, the City declared a Drought on February 11, 2014. Cachuma and Gibraltar Reservoirs, which provide the majority of the City’s water supply, are at low levels with record low rainfall in the last year.  According to the City’s Long Term Water Supply Plan 2011 (LTWSP2011), in this situation the City would consider using “Drought Supplies” such as State Water that is banked for use during dry periods or from the purchase of water during the critical drought period.  Due to the severity of the present statewide drought, it is possible that neither of these supplies will be available. Therefore, it is prudent to consider reactivating the City desalination facility. For more information on the drought, visit our drought homepage.

On May 6, 2014, City Council authorized execution of a contract in the amount of $746,025 for preliminary design services for reactivating the desalination facility. Assuming continuation of current weather conditions, the City is preparing to be ready to award a construction contract as early as June 2015. 

The City’s intentions, as presented in its LTWSP2011, are to use the desalination facility as a drought relief measure as may be needed.  A plant capacity of 3,125 AFY was used for purposes of analysis related to the LTWSP2011.  However, as part of this preliminary design work we will be re-evaluating the capacity based on the circumstances in the current dry period. 



In the face of a challenging water supply crisis in the late 1980’s, the City of Santa Barbara (City) constructed a seawater desalination facility as an emergency supply. The production capacity of the facility was 7,500 acre feet per year (AFY) with the potential for expansion up to 10,000 AFY.  The neighboring water districts of Montecito and Goleta contracted for entitlements of 1,250 AFY and 3,069 AFY, respectively, during the five year contract period.  The City had entitlement to 3,181 AFY.  All sharing of costs for construction was based on these entitlements.

After the plant was constructed, it was operated between March and June of 1992.  Due to abundant rainfall in the 1991-1992 winter and subsequent winters, the City’s drought condition was relieved and the desalination plant was placed into a standby mode.  The $34 million total construction cost was paid off during the initial 5-year contract period by the City, Goleta Water District, and Montecito Water District, with a City share of approximately $14.5 million.  However, the Goleta and Montecito Water Districts did not elect to extend or renew their interest in the facility after the initial five year contract period.

On June 4, 1991, City voters elected to make desalination a permanent part of the City’s water supply portfolio. With the approval of the Long Term Water Supply Program on July 5, 1994 (LTWSP1994) the City added the desalination facility to its permanent sources of water. An Environmental Impact Report on the LTWSP1994 was certified on May 24, 1994. On October 15, 1996, the California Coastal Commission issued a Coastal Development Permit to the City for permanent desalination facilities up to a maximum capacity of 10,000.  The permit provided for intermittent and base load operation.

Last Updated: Jun 30, 2015