Reverse-osmosis filters are shown as construction continues on the Western Hemisphere’s largest seawater desalination plant, in Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

The slumbering desalination plant that rests off the Ventura Freeway in a seedy area called the Funk Zone might one day be the answer to this coastal city’s desperate need for water.

But for now, it’s the butt of a small joke.

When a group of visitors arrived to inspect the plant’s abandoned control room recently, they found an eerie scene: yellowed desktop computers with cathode-ray-tube screens and a dusty dot matrix printer that hadn’t been used in nearly two decades. The air was stale, and their voices echoed off the bare walls.

“They said it reminded them of the Dharma Initiative” from “Lost,” said Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager. On the fictional TV show, survivors of an airplane crash discover the outdated technology of a research group in an old bunker.

In Santa Barbara, the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant has sat in limbo since 1992, when it was cranked up for testing and quickly shut down when the rain suddenly returned. With California parched again, city officials want to bring the plant back to life to turn millions of gallons of ocean water a day into fresh, drinkable water.

Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, looks at equipment that was removed from the sea and mothballed after the city shut down its desalination plant more than two decades ago. (Alicia Chang/AP)

But the cost is raising concerns throughout this coastal community. The plant cost $34 million to build and would cost $50 million to restart and $5 million a year to run. Opponents warn that the process, which involves pulling ocean water through a pipe, could kill untold numbers of fish eggs and tiny marine organisms.

Each side of the debate accuses the other of being foolhardy. Critics of a restart, mostly conservation-minded environmentalists, say city officials were too quick to embrace a solution that can disturb the ocean’s ecology while releasing copious amounts of greenhouse gases resulting from the plant’s heavy reliance on electricity. Less-intrusive steps to maximize the water supply, such as capturing rainwater, should be tried first, they say. Besides, they add, the drought could end at any time.

“Desalination is the most environmentally harmful and expensive source of water there is,” said Kira Redmond, executive director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that focuses on water issues.

“I don’t know why people don’t think the same thing won’t happen again,” she said, referring to 1992, when the facility was closed before producing a drop of water.

Supporters, including city officials and some residents, say Santa Barbara needs more water now and insist that California cannot possibly capture enough rainwater to cope with the most severe drought the state has ever faced. The city of 90,000 has cut its water use by more than 35 percent, officials say.

“We just need to be prepared,” says Helene Schneider, the city’s mayor. With levels reaching record lows at two reservoirs that provide its potable water, Santa Barbara could experience a severe shortage as soon as next year, she said, adding, “It takes 12 to 15 months to recommission the plant.”

Environmental risks

Desalination, which is used from Israel to Australia, isn’t new. The United States has at least 200 plants, including nearly 150 in Florida that produce more than 500 million gallons of fresh water each day.

In California, where cities are increasingly desperate as the drought drags into its fourth year, 21 plants are operating, and 17 are proposed, according to the Pacific Institute, a research group based in Oakland. San Diego is putting the finishing touches on a $1 billion plant, which will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

In Santa Barbara, officials are hoping to restart their plant next year so it can provide the city with 30 percent of its water supply by 2017. A pipe would extend three-quarters of a mile into the Pacific Ocean and draw in about 7 million gallons a day.

The salt, algae, seaweed and debris in the water would be removed by filtration. The unwanted separated material — brine mixed with treated wastewater — would be dispatched back to the ocean through a second, 8,700-foot-long pipe. Small holes in the last 600 feet of the pipe would allow the brine to seep back into the sea over a large area, diffusing the high-salinity waste.

Critics such as Channelkeeper and the California Coastal Protection Network say there has not been enough scrutiny of the impact of the plant on the coast about a mile from the Stearns Wharf, where seawater will be sucked in and waste brine pumped out. Pulling enormous volumes of salt water from the Pacific and spitting back saltier brine, they say, is likely to kill millions of fish eggs at the start of the process and possibly damage the ecology at the end.

Moreover, opponents say, removing salt from ocean water requires major power consumption; electricity accounts for as much as half of the cost of operating a plant. The resulting greenhouse-gas emissions are so high that desalination plants are required to aggressively seek ways to offset the carbon output.

Before resorting to desalination, said Redmond of Channelkeeper, city officials should be more aggressive about water conservation. “There are lots of things the city could be doing, like building a stormwater-capture system,” she said.

City officials such as Haggmark counter that a fine strainer will guard against fish and their eggs being swept into the intake pipe of the desalination plant. The city took great care in designing the plant to minimize the discharge, he said, adding that various methods to offset carbon emissions are already being sought.

Research on the impact of desalination is mixed. A 2010 study by the University of New South Wales in Australia found that “desalination plants may adversely impact the ecology of marine ecosystems.” However, the study said, the harm can be reduced by diluting the brine, which the city plans on doing.

Last month, the Santa Barbara City Council voted to spend about $4 million on the plant’s redesign, the first step in bringing it back online.

An opportunity missed

Montecito, an unincorporated community, is enviously watching neighboring Santa Barbara’s effort to restart desalination.

In Montecito, where talk-show stars Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres maintain huge estates, there’s enough water to last only another two years, said Thomas Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District. Unlike Santa Barbara, Montecito has no groundwater to rely on for part of its supply.

During the drought from 1987 to 1992, the water district entered into an agreement with Santa Barbara to acquire water from the desalination plant. The contract money paid half the cost of building the plant, Mosby said. But when rain returned in the March Miracle of ’92, the district walked away, washing its hands of the effort.

Although Santa Barbara shut down the plant, it pursued the required state operating permits just in case of another drought. Montecito did nothing.

Now, as its water supply dwindles, Montecito is alone. Officials there asked the state whether they could partner with Santa Barbara again, but the request was denied because Montecito lacked permits.

Montecito Water District has only a few options left: take steps to build its own desalination plant for about $100 million; hope the state takes pity and grants it a waiver to join Santa Barbara and avert a catastrophe; or pray for rain.

“They did the right thing,” Mosby said of Santa Barbara.

Turning to creativity

Santa Barbara resident Nancy Black is not so sure. “I remember when they opened this plant years ago,” she said. “Many people felt they were swindled in that deal.”

Black thinks the city and state should aggressively pursue capturing and using rainwater, as she has done at her house, a three-bedroom, two-bath, mid-century modern on a third of an acre.

Although Santa Barbara allows the little rain it gets to drain into the Pacific Ocean, Black, who writes a syndicated astrology column for newspapers, spent about $3,000 to capture any water that falls on her property with gutters and direct it to avocado, apple, orange and lemon trees.

“It’s not very expensive to do,” she said. A basin filled with mulch soaks rainwater and holds it like a sponge. “It’s a little oasis. I have a fabulous garden.” Black paid another $1,000 to collect her shower water to irrigate plants and for household chores.

“We’ve cut our water use dramatically,” to 50 gallons per day for her family of four from about 250 per day, she said. A household of the same size in Los Angeles uses an average of 350 gallons per day.

That success hasn’t convinced most of Black’s neighbors, who are reluctantly pinning their hopes on desalination, she said. “In the community I live in, it’s really cool to have a green lawn, and it’s, like, [forget] everyone.”

Unlike some other cities, Santa Barbara has not restricted the watering of grass to two days a week. “We tried that,” Haggmark said. “People way over-watered their yards on those days. It was a disaster.”

As a soft morning rain fell around the desalination plant she visited on a recent Tuesday, Schneider’s lips curved into a wry half smile. “This,” said the city’s mayor, “is such a tease.”

It was a reminder of why desalination was shelved two decades ago. Could the same thing happen to the $50 million effort to restart the plant if the drought suddenly ends?

“That’s a conversation we need to have and have not had yet,” she said. “What is the role of desalination without drought?”