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Costly desalination plant still on track after angry words over growing price tag

The Santa Barbara desalination plant will carry a price tag estimated to be about $70 million when it produces its first glass of water later this spring.

It started out as a $55 million project to restart the plant, but rising costs have made some city council members, taxpayers and analysts uneasy.

Some of the problems are linked back to when the city operated the desal plant briefly in the early 1990’s. Some of the facility’s equipment was incorporated into the current plan which has become problematic, with damages found creating a mess for construction crews.

Santa Barbara Water Resources Manager Joshua Haggmark said preliminary investigations did not predict the issues now coming to the surface and the prior contractor is long gone. City Councilman Frank Hotchkiss said the faulty work done 25 years ago constitutes “fraud” on the city and urged some follow up. His tone was bitter and measured against a similar action had it been done to him on his own home.

There’s also been the discovery of contaminated soils no one knew about at more than one site at the plant.

In addition, underwater sea floor problems have made key components unstable.

That being said, Haggmark told the council the bad days appear to be in the past for the project and it looks like water could be ready between mid-March and mid-April. He said the city needs to keep “this valuable and very critical water supply on schedule.”

Waiting for new bids or other options would still cost the city $20,000 a day according to Haggmark. “We need to make decisions. We need to make decisions quickly,” he said.

Councilman Hotchkiss said the contractor needs to “sharpen his pencil” on costs.

City Councilman Jason Dominguez was also critical of the costs, the oversight, inspections and accountability. As the council voted in favor of another $10-million to finish the project, Dominguez was the only “no” vote.

Haggmark is hopeful the costs can be folded into a state loan for this project with a very low interest rate. The funding process could take six months.

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