The First Desalination Plant in California

California Coastal Commission OKs desalination plant in Orange County

On a sunny September day in 2014, John McCracken, a retired professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara, stood in front of a bulldozer, directing a crew of men clearing a five-acre site on the UC Santa Barbara College of Environmental Sciences campus.

In what would be the eighth major desalination plant built in California, McCracken was overseeing the removal of rock and mud during construction at the site in South Gate, a quiet, residential neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean in Santa Barbara.

The area where the plant would be built had been an open field of grass for more than a century, and a decade before the first desalination plant in the state was approved, environmentalists had been fighting to protect the site from becoming a “brown lagoon,” a phrase critics use to describe a reclaimed land that is infertile with the runoff from coastal cities and agricultural land near the Pacific Ocean.

But now, at last, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had authorized the construction of a facility that promised to solve that problem once and for all. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the South Gate facility was the first in the state to use reverse osmosis to make water clean and drinkable.

At the end of the day, however, McCracken was more excited about the people working nearby, who had volunteered their time to build and maintain the plant.

The project required a community effort, he said. For years, the South Gate area had seen a rise in homeless people moving in and out of empty houses and apartments. With new housing being constructed on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, the area was becoming a magnet for drug addicts and petty criminals.

The most recent crime stats were a cause for alarm, McCracken said. For several years, his university had lost about $50,000 in revenue because of thefts and burglaries from university property. There had been reports of car break-ins. Most recently, a security guard from the UCSB library had been stabbed to death.

McCracken said he was relieved. He realized that this community of homeless and low-income people needed some help. But for that help to be good for them and the area around the plant, it had to have

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