Orange County's Other, Better Desalination Project

Dana Point's Doheny Beach, a strip of sand located just off Pacific Coast Highway, is one of the few places in Southern California where you can go beach camping. It's been popular for decades with sunbathers and families, who each weekend scramble to get first rights to the numerous fire pits that dot the beach just a few feet away from a parking lot that runs parallel to the water line.

It's also an unlikely home for what could be Southern California's last, great hope for responsible desalination–the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project.


The project, with roots going back to the mid 2000s, was originally led by the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) with partnerships with San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Moulton Niguel Water District, South Coast Water District and Laguna Beach County Water District. Because these water districts are located in a part of the county that isn't fed by the Santa Ana River, there is little ground water available to pump, and the districts have been forced to import nearly all their water.

The program came to a pause in 2013 after initial tests of the proposed desalination project's water-intake technology produced positive results. Only two years into Southern California's current drought, three of the five authorities decided to pull out of the project, most citing its $150 million price tag. In addition, the water the plant would produce would cost more than water imported from the State Water Project or the Colorado River (currently, price estimates stand at $1,100 per acre-foot of water after a $250 per acre-foot subsidy from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Imported water is set to cost $927 per acre-foot in 2015, with costs projected to increase).

After two more years of drought, however, the project is finally moving forward. This time, desalination in Doheny Beach is being driven by the two remaining project participants–South Coast Water District and the Laguna Beach County Water District, which together serve portions of Dana Point, Laguna Beach, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and unincorporated Orange County. Last week, the board of South Coast Water District approved a contract hiring a professional consultant to act as project manager and to start the permitting and environmental-study portion of the process.

“Each of the entities–Moulton Niguel, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente–had to make their own decisions based on their own determining factors,” says Andrew Brunhart, general manager of the South Coast Water District. Like much of South County, his district depends greatly on water from other parts of the state, importing 80 percent of the water it uses. However, South Coast operates both a water-recycling program that supplies 10 percent of the district's water needs (recycled water is used for outdoor irrigation) and a Groundwater Recovery facility, which purifies brackish ground water in the San Juan Basin and, during a normal year, also provides an additional 10 percent. But in September of last year, that facility had to cease operation due to increasing salt levels in the ground water caused by a lack of rain and snowmelt.

The Doheny project would produce approximately 15 percent of South Coast's water needs when the first phase of the project opens in 2021, with future capacity to provide up to 45 percent of the area's potable war with further expansion.

“It's a local source of water. We have the property, and the phase three test results were successful,” Brunhart says. “It's obvious that California is in a severe drought. This could be the new normal.”
That's a line often repeated by people trying to sell water authorities on expensive private development projects, but in South County's case, the project actually makes perfect sense. For one, conservation in the area is already high–in May 2015, South Coast Water District reduced its water usage by 29 percent compared to 2013, overshooting its 24 percent goal as determined by the State Water Resources Control Board. It would also produce water where it was actually needed, unlike the proposed Poseidon Resources Huntington Beach project, (see “Zombie Poseidon From Beyond the Grave,” March 13, 2015). Instead of producing water in Surf City, pumping that water into the aquifer, pumping it back out, and then pumping it into pipes headed towards South County, the Doheny project's future site is located near already existing water mains.

“It'd go straight into the system,” Brunhart says. “We would barely need to build any distribution systems. The only distribution we would need to build is the piping from the ocean to the plant and the minuscule distance from the plant to the mains.”

Even the necessary construction would be better for the environment and Dana Point residents than the Huntington Beach project's, which would also require the Orange County Water District build and pay for their own distribution system. The Doheny plant as designed uses slant well water intakes, which are buried beneath the sea floor and draw water that is naturally filtered by sand and rock. This eliminates environmental concerns from sucking in marine life and also eliminates much of the pretreatment requirements of the source water. The brine that would be discharged from the plant would flow to a water treatment plant run by the South Orange County Wastewater Authority and be diluted before it returns to the ocean.

But even if you don't care about the environment, the numbers make more sense for rate payers. The project would cost an estimated $150 million to eventually produce between 15 and 20 million gallons of potable water per day, depending on study results. Poseidon's Huntington Beach project, which would produce 50 million gallons per day, costs approximately $700 million, not to mention the cost of building additional infrastructure.

Though that $700 million sum would be privately financed, rate payers would eventually eat the cost through higher water rates. The projected cost of water from the Doheny project is $1,100 per acre-foot after subsidies, which is approximately the same if not slightly cheaper than the pricing structure of Poseidon water in Orange County (not to mention the $1,800 per acre-foot Poseidon is charging San Diego).

Brunhart argues that a locally-controlled, well-tested and municipally-owned project that won't negatively or even noticeably impact the beach where it is located, is a no-brainer, especially given Southern California's ongoing, epic drought. “In this particular period,” he says, “it is incumbent on all of us to find additional sources of water for the future of California.”

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