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Potential new answer to the drought: floating desalination systems off the Central, South Coasts?

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SeaWell
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A Santa Barbara-base company called SeaWell is proposing using floating buoys containing desalination systems to create fresh water for coastal communities. This is an artist's illustration.

A Santa Barbara-based company is working with Vandenberg Space Force Base on a test project. A buoy would contain an automated desalination system.

Almost daily, we’re being reminded that we can’t take something as simple as a glass of water for granted, as the impacts of the drought continue to grow.

But now, officials with an innovative company are preparing to test a new approach in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties to turning sea water into drinking water.

"The technology for creating water from the ocean has been around for a long time, but no one has really done much to change the way it's actually done," said Peter Stricker, who's with a Santa Barbara-based company called SeaWell.

The company is planning to use existing, but expensive water desalination technology in a new way. What if instead of building a huge plant, like Santa Barbara did, you create a floating ocean buoy which in effect contained a small water desalination system?

The buoys would float about a mile offshore, connected to a power line and a water pipe to ship purified water onshore.

This is more than an idea. The company has teamed up with Vandenberg Space Force Base, where it’s planning to test one of the SeaWell SW150 buoys.

The buoys are still in the design stage, but the hope is to soon begin testing key element of the system at a one of a kind desalination test facility at Naval Base Ventura County.

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The SeaWell buoys have most of their desalination equiment below the ocean's surface.

The water stations are designed to be environmentally friendly, protecting sea life. They ingest water at rates well below government maximums, and brine created by the desalination process is diffused back into the ocean, so it can blend into the sea.

The timeline for the test project is still unclear, because in addition to getting the technology ready, the effort still needs a number of government permits.

The Vandenberg test project would be powered by an onshore solar facility. The goal is to eventually provide electricity to the units using renewable energy like solar, wind, and wave power.

Stricker said they aren’t planning to build, and sell the water stations. He’s president of the SeaWell subsidiary, Ocean Portal Water Company, which would operate the water stations and sell the water to communities.

"It's easier for us to say we'll sell the water, and take on the risk," said Stricker. "They don't have to think about the technological challenges of something they aren't familiar with."

And, he said the beauty of this floating water station approach is that more of them could be added to a drought. Or, if there’s heavy rainfall, they could be moved to another area where they are needed.

SeaWell officials said one of the buoys supplies enough water to meet the needs of around 5200 homes annually. They said they could have a number of the systems in place in five years.

While they said it make sense for coastal communities, they note it could help California as a whole by allowing state water to be redirected to inland areas with fewer water options.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.