An Opportunity for Montecito

By Bob Hazard   |   October 1, 2019

Montecito has emerged temporarily from a seven-year drought which ended in 2017. Our opportunity for permanent water security and independence from drought is to tap the biggest reservoir in the world, the Pacific Ocean, larger than all the world’s land masses combined. The Pacific Ocean covers 30% of the Earth’s surface, or 60 million square miles, with an average depth of 1,300 feet. It holds more than half the Earth’s open water supply at 600 billion acre feet (AF).

The Pacific Ocean reservoir was built by nature at no cost to ratepayers. Conversely, any new reservoir built in California today will cost billions and can never be built if challenged by the environmental community as a threat to the endangered Shasta salamander, the Delta smelt, or the San Joaquin kit fox.

Unlike oil or natural gas, water is naturally indestructible and can be constantly recycled through evaporation, feeder streams and tributaries, and natural rain and fog. The problem is geographic; potable fresh water is not always in the places that it is needed most. 

Off-Shore Water Factories

I have a dream that someday soon, Montecito can stop worrying about potable drinking water and responsible landscaping that adds beauty to life. Can we create an innovative, affordable, and imaginative solution to end drought? Conventional thinkers always tell dreamers: “That idea is not technically feasible… It will cost too much… The environmental community will never let it happen.” Throughout history, those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by those doing it.

Decommissioned oil and gas Platform Holly lies just two miles off Haskell’s Beach. It joins six other oil platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel scheduled to be permanently shut down and removed. The de-commissioning cost to oil companies per platform is a whopping $500 million to $1 billion, depending upon which option is mandated by our state.

The options being considered are: 1) Take down all seven platforms and their sub-structures completely at a cost of $1 billion per platform; 2) Create artificial reefs for marine life by retaining that portion of the platform that is below the ocean’s surface; 3) Convert the platforms to Water Factories at oil company expense in lieu of them incurring decommissioning costs. In effect, “Convert Oil into Water.”

Why Platform Holly as a Test Water Factory?

Before shutting down operations in 2015, Holly’s 30 wells on its one-acre platform descended more than 200 feet before piercing the ocean’s floor. They then spidered-out nearly 10,000 feet in all directions, to extract a mixture of both water and natural gas.

The concept would be to use existing drilling technology to extract sub-ocean floor water and natural gas with no harm to marine life. Pass the extracted water through new underseas reverse osmosis (RO) membranes to remove salt and other impurities and deliver fresh desalinated water through existing natural gas pipelines to urban users along the California Coast.

The deal to be crafted would be for oil companies, or their appointed surrogates, to fund and produce some 25,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of desalinated water per year at zero-cost to taxpayers, shipped from the Holly platform to a shore-based “Water Portal” in return for relief on the $500-million to $1-billion cost of decommissioning each abandoned platform.

Water districts would have to pick-up the cost of a conveyance systems to distribute the water to their users, probably through a connection to the existing South Coast Conduit, which already links Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito, and Carpinteria.

The plan would eliminate our 70% unreliable dependency on the outdated and costly State Water System. In a gesture of nobility, coastal cities could cede or sell all their State Water (and its associated costs) to inland cities and inland agricultural interests that need more water.

Water Factory Ownership

The Platform HollyWater Factory could be owned by oil companies, or public/private partnerships, or private contractors such as Poseidon/IDE, or Santa Barbara’s own Jim Dehlsen at Dehlsen & Associates and Peter Stricker at Ecomerit Technologies. Dehlsen and Stricker has recognized that land-based desalination plants are environmentally unfriendly and expensive to build with the high cost of land, permitting restrictions, regulatory costs and legal costs in California.

They have developed engineering models for modular SeaWell offshore desalination buoys using ring-based RO modules that could be operational within two years to desalinate seawater.

Energy Considerations

Desalination operating costs are driven by the high costs of energy in California. 

Ideally the Holly Platform desalination test program energy needs could be resolved by solar panels, wind turbines, wave or tidal technology or some combination of all three. To meet a demanding time schedule, available and abundant natural gas now seeping next to the platform and polluting the air seems to be a natural short-term energy solution, while replacement solar, winds and tidal solutions are developed and tested at the Marine Biology Labs on-site.

Environmental Considerations

Could community environmentalists accept the formation of Water Factories on former oil platforms? First of all, unlike oil spills, there are no adverse environmental effects from a freshwater spill.

Second, serious environmental concerns about the damage to marine life from an intake system that sucks fish larvae, eggs or plankton would be eliminated because the mix of gas and water as feedwater would be extracted from beneath the ocean floor.

Third, brine disposal problems would be minimized by diluting the brine with an unlimited amount of seawater.

Fourth, a home would remain to nurture the 45 species of fish and hundreds of thousands of endangered invertebrates that use the existing platform structure as their habitat.

Fifth, desalinated water could recharge our depleted aquifers preventing a potential catastrophe from saltwater intrusion and overdrafts.

Cost of Desalinated Water

An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons. It is about the amount that a family of five in California uses in a year. The cost of desalinated water has been coming down as the technology evolves. In the last three decades, the cost of desalination has dropped by more than half, except in California. The California added-cost culprits are the highest energy costs in the nation; the thicket of environmental, permitting and operating regulations; and California’s hostility to fossil fuel production anywhere in the state.

The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, 30 miles north of San Diego, remains the largest plant to turn saltwater into fresh water in North America. Each day 100 million gallons of seawater are pushed through semi-permeable membranes to create 50 million gallons of freshwater that is piped to municipal users at a cost of $2,100 per acre-foot (AF). Water from the San Diego desalination plant costs more than twice the cost per AF for a similar desalination plant built by the same company, IDE Technologies, in Israel.

Desalinated water from the Charles E. Meyer desalination plant in Santa Barbara has been offered to the Montecito Water District (MWD) at the hefty price of nearly $3,000 an acre foot, a third more expensive than Carlsbad and three times the cost of desal water in Israel. The affordable price for desalinated water is $1,000 per AF, or less.

$100 Million Desalination Project to be Led by Lawrence Berkley Lab

Fortuitously, last month, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to lead a $100-million research project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy aimed solely at bringing down the cost of desalination.

Nineteen universities around the country including Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA and others, along with 10 private industry partners and other Department of Energy institutions such as Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, will combine talents to reduce the cost of removing salt from ocean water to make it a more viable source of drinking water.

How to Get Started?

Identifying problems is the easy part. Finding fundable and feasible solutions is the hard part. Big ideas usually come with a price tag that normally necessitates a big tax increase or a big utility rate increase. This idea does not: no tax increases, no rate increases.

Santa Barbara County needs imaginative new ideas. Our county is essentially broke (financially challenged) because of unfunded public pension liabilities and retiree health care costs. Recently beset by wildfires, floods and mudslides, the latest debacle is 10-years of potential power outages from our trusted electrical utilities, PG&E and Edison, who both threaten to shut off all power whenever a brush fire or winds greater than 30 mph seem imminent.

Is it possible for South County leadership – Supervisors Das Williams, Gregg Hart and Joan Hartman – all openly pro-environment and anti-oil and natural gas drilling – along with supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino – to meet with Lawrence Laboratory representatives and a community technology team to structure a “Proof of Concept” for the Holly Platform, or any other platform for a conversion to a Water Factory and a marine biology lab?

Business leaders with ties to our community could include Steve Bechtel (Bechtel Corporation), Ken Stinson (Kiewit Corp); Jim Dehlsen (Aquantis) and Peter Stricker (Ecomerit Technologies); Gilad Cohen, CEO of IDE Americas and/or Ralph Felix of IDE Americas, Inc, who manages the desalination plant for Santa Barbara, and many others.

Even if technically feasible, would oil companies accept the capital and operating costs of Water Factories in lieu of platform decommissioning costs? Would environmentalists stop blocking anything and everything? Would elected leaders and Lawrence Lab accept fossil fuel money to help fund research for this program?

We can no longer afford to live in our current La La Land. This is an issue for Das Williams and/or Gregg Hart to pursue in order to polish their environmental credentials as innovative and effective dealmakers. Let me know what you think. Email me at


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