WASHINGTON — Two Southern California officials urged a Senate panel Tuesday to provide more federal funds for desalination research, noting that current methods of purifying seawater and waste water tend to be too costly for most communities to consider.
Several seawater desalination plants already are in operation or under construction in California, including a Santa Barbara facility expected to supply up to a third of the city's water needs, said Neil M. Cline, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, and Harriet Miller, a member of the Santa Barbara City Council.
But technological advances are needed to make desalination a cost-effective means of supplying significant amounts of drinking water, the two officials told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The panel is considering legislation that would provide more than $90 million in federal funding for water research in next five years.
"Desalting plants as water supply systems are among the least environmentally intrusive projects available. They don't flood pristine canyons, don't emit offensive exhaust fumes, are generally very quiet and are reliable," Cline said.
"With today's technology, they are also very expensive to build and operate and they generate brine streams that require costly management."
Current desalination techniques require large amounts of electricity, the officials said. In addition, existing methods for disposing of the resulting salty concentrate need to be improved, they said.
The handful of existing and planned plants are justified by extreme water shortages that exhausted conventional alternatives. In the Central Coast region, for example, officials even considered importing water in barges from Vancouver, Canada, before turning to desalination.
Water produced by the Santa Barbara plant will cost consumers about $1,900 per acre-foot, Miller said. That compares with about $260 per acre-foot for Colorado River water piped to Southern California and as little as $100 per acre-foot for ground water, she said.
Construction of the facility began last month. After its scheduled opening in February, 1992, the plant is expected to reclaim enough fresh water from the ocean to supply one-third of the city's water needs, Miller said.
"We need to drought-proof our water supply system," Miller told the committee. "Our system is more than adequate in most years, but we need a cost-effective means of maintaining deliveries during infrequent prolonged dry periods."
About 1,000 desalination plants are in operation throughout the country, but most are used only for cleaning brackish ground water, a less expensive process than seawater reclamation, or for producing highly purified water for industrial purposes.
The first permanent seawater desalination plant in the United States was opened by the Navy on San Nicolas Island last October. Another started up on Santa Catalina Island last month.
The Metropolitan Water District is planning to build a plant in San Diego that would process 100 million gallons of water per day. The Orange County Water District is considering expanding its use of desalination facilities to treat waste water.
Other communities exploring the feasibility of using desalinated seawater in municipal water supplies include San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Diego, Ventura and Oxnard, the officials said. Morro Bay has already voted to build a desalting plant and raise water rates by 30% to pay for the new facility.
The Senate committee is considering legislation that would authorize the Interior Department to fund at least $90 million worth of research during the next five years.