Either way, it adds up to a whopper of a new water bill for a city that once tended to view any potential new water source as a threat to the community's hopes of warding off future growth.
But the slow-growth movement that dominated Ventura politics just a few years ago dried up in a period of drought and economic recession, and city leaders now view more water as a basic need.
The voters have two choices: One is a new desalination plant at an estimated $30.4 million per year. The other is a pipeline to bring in state water at an estimated $24.2 million per year.
In the final weeks before a Nov. 3 advisory vote on which source to rely on, the debate over Measure O has focused increasingly on the question of whether those estimates are correct.
While advocates of a desalination plant continue to question the claim that a state water pipeline would be cheaper by $6.2 million a year, the state water forces say their challengers have been unable to disprove that a pipeline would be the cheaper alternative.
In the last of three debates between the two sides, John Johnson, the general manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District, last week summed up the arguments for a pipeline with a warning that anything more costly could be a financial disaster.
"It would probably come close to bankrupting the city," he said.
But Timothy Downey, a Ventura planning commissioner and desalination proponent, urged voters to beware of the campaign theme that a state water hookup will ever be managed at bargain basement prices.
"If you vote for state water based on cost, beware of the many assumptions that were made to get to that figure," he warned.
Although official cost estimates by the city gave state water proponents an obvious edge in the debate and state water forces have so far spent twice as much money in the campaign, desalination advocates remain upbeat.
"People are hearing our message and that's all we've got," Downey said. A recent telephone poll that Desal Water conducted showed that formerly undecided voters are turning toward desalination, he said.
Supporters of state water, however, said they believe that the financial worries of voters will prevail when ballots are cast.
"I think it's a real cost and I think that's what people will really have to pay," Johnson said. "If people believe the estimates, and there is every reason they should, they will vote for state water."
Voters are asked on the ballot whether to build a desalination plant that would bring 7,000 acre-feet per year at a cost of $30.4 million per year for 30 years, or build a pipeline to connect to the California Aqueduct for $24.2 million per year.
The ballot measure is structured so that residents must vote for one or the other for their ballots to count. There is no third choice that allows voters to choose to stay within existing means.
"Nobody thinks now that we don't need new water," said Ventura Councilman Todd Collart, one of three slow-growth candidates elected in November, 1989. "Those of us on the council have been convinced we are out of water."
But the council decided last July to ask the public for its opinion of which source would be better. Council members Collart, Gary Tuttle, Cathy Bean and Jack Tingstrom have said they will abide by the voters' decision.
If, after the advisory vote, the City Council chooses to build a desalination plant, the city of Ventura would build a plant somewhere in downtown Ventura.
The plant would be fed by a two-mile intake line from the ocean. The brine, or salty water distilled from the plant, would probably be piped to a sewage treatment plant. There it would be mixed with treated sewage water to dilute the salt content to the same consistency as that of the ocean.
A so-called outfall line would then carry the mixed water back out to sea.
The city's analysis, performed by Boyle Engineering Corp., sets capital cost estimates to build a plant at about $55 million.
Additional costs added into the annual estimates include an $11 million annual cost the city already pays to deliver its water, new ground water wells, treatment plants and other conveyance lines within the city.
Desalination proponents have claimed that the estimated construction cost is too high.
Arthur O. Whipple, the president of Aqua Design Inc., said his firm has built 100 seawater desalination plants around the world, most of which have been relatively small to serve hotels and other private facilities.
The firm has also built eight plants in Libya, the Carribean and one in Morro Bay.
Whipple has promised that his firm could build a plant to the city's specifications for $20 million less than the consultant's estimates.
"I will sign a contract putting our company on the line to build the plant for $33 million," Whipple said. His price includes the intake line, the outfall and the plant itself, and the first $1 million in permitting costs. The city would provide the land and the connection to the plant to deliver the water.