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Desal plant cost overruns prompt calls for more oversight

A combination of social media outrage and an uncomfortable Santa Barbara City Council meeting over $10 million in new costs for the waterfront desalination plant has prompted strong calls for more financial oversight on large city projects.

The outrage follows the need to spend more than $10 million in additional funding to restart the Charles Meyer Desalination Plant which was built in the 1990’s, but mothballed just months after beginning operations. On Tuesday, city council members learned costs to restart the plant would climb significantly, primarily because of a need to replace rather than reuse equipment which sat idle at the plant for decades.

Water managers were granted the higher budget from the city council, but plan to seek state financial help to offset some of the added cost.

The significant size of the overrun has prompted one councilman to call for greater oversight on future large scale projects.

Jason Dominguez demanded more city staff members and inspectors be involved with contractors on future projects to ensure they are completed on time and to deal with any surprises as quickly as possible. In some cases, Dominguez said an outside firm could be called in, or multiple bids could be reviewed instead of a one contractor – one price procedure.

Dominguez pointed to upcoming street, sidewalk, and building projects where the city cannot afford multi-million dollar surprises.

“So it’s a pretty long list now. I want to make sure that we spend the appropriate amount of resources to make sure we have best practices in place,” Dominguez said. Council member Frank Hotchkiss looked at the desal plant’s original restoration price of $55 million and the current bottom line of $70 million with a growl, saying big changes need to be put in front of expert analysts. “And say look does this seem reasonable. Consult here. I think we need more eyes here. This is a $15-million dollar ‘oops’ here. That’s a lot of money,” Hotchkiss said. Social media posts have also been sharply critical of the costs and the value to the city’s water supply. Santa Barbara water leaders strongly support the new water source, especially if winter rainfall is average or below average in the Cachuma Lake watershed, now in the sixth year of drought. Conservation goals are at 40 percent and there is a ban on lawn watering as of January 1. Water from the desal plant, combined with outside water purchases, well water, reclaimed water projects and conservation are estimated to create an adequate water supply for the city residents through this year. New inflow into Cachuma from a solid winter of rain would be the most welcomed sight in years for water officials.

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