Southern California Desalination Plant Moves Forward

The desalination plant would be built on 30 acres of district-owned property near San Juan Creek, about 2,500 feet from the beach north of Pacific Coast Highway.

by Erika I. Ritchie, The Orange County Register / March 30, 2016
A desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif. John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS

(TNS) -- A desalination plant proposed near San Juan Creek could produce as much as 15 million gallons of drinking water daily and create a reliable source for South County-area reserves in the wake of an earthquake or drought, officials said.

South Coast Water District officials said plans for the $90 million plant – studied for more than a decade – are moving forward despite the fact that the district would be the sole agency building it. The plant – with a 2019 opening date – would likely provide 75 percent of the district’s water needs, said Andrew Brunhardt, the district’s general manager.

The water district serves South Laguna, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and a small part of San Clemente. Initially, the Laguna County Water District, Moulton Niguel Water District and the cities of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano expressed interest, but have since opted out, said Brunhardt.

The desalination plant would be built on 30 acres of district-owned property near San Juan Creek, about 2,500 feet from the beach north of Pacific Coast Highway. As planned, three wells at Doheny State Beach would draw water from beneath the ocean floor, with about 90 percent of the water coming from the ocean and 10 percent from water that drains to the ocean from San Juan Creek.

On Thursday, district officials will hold a community meeting to discuss the project and its environmental report. The report will look at long-term effects on plants and animals near the mouth of the creek and at impacts to geology, land use and planning and noise and traffic.

“I believe we are doing the right thing to provide another source of water for South Orange County,” Brunhardt said. “We live in a coastal community. Residents don’t ask our board of directors, ‘why desalination,’ they ask, ‘why is it taking so long?’”

The Surfrider Foundation, which has opposed the larger Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach, has given a thumbs-up to the Doheny project – the only time the group has supported a desalination project in California.

“Not all desalination projects are equal,” said Denise Erkeneff, administrator for Surfrider’s South Orange County chapter.

South Coast Water District will work with the Municipal Water District of Orange County, a regional wholesaler, for technical assistance. MWDOC was the agency that in 2003 began looking for reliable water supplies in South Orange County – which imports most of its water from the Colorado River and other areas.

A 2004 study by the group determined that the Dana Point location was best due to the area’s geology, availability of land with an existing outfall for brine disposal and proximity to existing water pipelines.

Officials at Moulton Niguel Water District – which covers Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel – said they backed out of the project because water conservation efforts have helped with their water supplies. Laguna Beach County Water District in February signed an agreement with Orange County Water District that for the first time in 65 years means the district will no longer rely 100 percent on imported water.

The South Coast Water District will explore options to finance the project at its board meeting Monday. If the district designs and builds the plant, the board will apply for state loans and grants to help with the project. That means ratepayers could see an increase in their bills.

Another alternative is to look at a private partnership like what is being done with the Poseidon project, Brunhardt said.

The Doheny plant would be much smaller than what’s being planned up the coast in Huntington Beach. There, Poseidon Water is proposing a $1-billion desalination facility that could produce 50 million gallons of drinking water per day. The California Coastal Commission must still rule on Poseidon’s construction permit.

Environmentalists oppose the venture because they say Poseidon Water is a business taking public resources, privatizing them and selling them back to the public.

Erkeneff, with the Surfrider Foundation, said the Doheny project does not take water from the open ocean and has plans for brine disposal, unlike the Poseidon project.

The project also would use slant-well technology that doesn’t take larvae and sea life. The brine would be blended with an ocean outfall so it would not result in a kill zone, Erkeneff said.

South Coast Water District has expanded its water supply portfolio over the past decade through enhanced water recycling, shallow groundwater treatment and water-use efficiency projects, officials said. Still, it is 80 percent dependent on imported water.

But some, like Michael Beanan, a South Laguna resident and member of Laguna Beach’s Water Advisory Board, question going to the ocean for water .

“Ocean desalination should be the last resort,” Beanan said. “Every day we discharge 10 million gallons of secondary sewage just 1.2 miles off of Laguna Beach. A wiser water plan will harvest and clean this wasted wastewater for irrigation, flushing toilets and other water demands.”

©2016 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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