STATEWIDE — California is home to a handful of saltwater desalination plants between Monterey County and Carlsbad. As California’s severe drought continues to persist there are some who say we need to build desalination plants to solve our water shortage problems. Others point out desalination is an expensive process and we still have cheaper, more environmentally friendly conservation means to pursue.
Should we convert saltwater to freshwater to counter California’s severe drought?
The question has certainly become magnified in Southern California, where a private for-profit company launched a desalination plant in Carlsbad and plans to build a second such venue in Huntington Beach. Meanwhile an amalgam of water districts and city governments are working to bring a desalination plant online in Dana Point.
Before delving into the depths of whether converting saltwater into freshwater is the best defense available to drought conditions it is necessary to understand what desalination is, as a concept.
The San Diego County Water Authority describes desalination as the use of “reverse osmosis technology to remove water molecules from seawater.”
“Water from the ocean is forced through tightly wrapped, semi permeable membranes under very high pressure,” the water authority continues to explain on its website. “The membranes allow the smaller water molecules to pass through, leaving salt and other impurities to be discharged from the facility.”
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) claims desalination is “not a modern science” but is a popular water treatment solution gaining traction in countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa.
California’s State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) describes desalination as, “the process of removing dissolved minerals from brackish or saltwater to produce freshwater that can be used for municipal needs such as drinking water and industrial uses.
“Desalination can be a tool to improve water supply reliability and self-reliance at the regional and local level,” the board’s staff stated in a published fact sheet.
The SWRCB added desalination plants could result in marine life mortality, both during construction and operation.
NPR and New York Times looked to one of those countries – Israel – as a potential model of replicating successful desalination operations in portions of the United States where water is scarce.
Ray Hiemstra, an associate director with Orange County Coastkeeper, said Israel’s ability to provide its residents with water through desalination makes sense since the country experiences severe water shortages for longer periods of time and is a small country (roughly 8 million residents) with hostile neighbors who might not be willing to share resources.
Resources are not necessarily scarce in Orange County, where Poseidon plans to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
The Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) outlined a handful of alternatives to desalination in a policy statement published on Aug. 26, 2015, such as capturing lost groundwater, recycling feasible sewage discharges and using good quality water from deep aquifers but has a brownish tint from the remains of ancient vegetation.
Meanwhile Newport Beach Surfrider suggests incorporating greater conservation efforts, such as installing low-flush toilets and eliminating irrigation demands through use of climate-adapted plants.
Options such as conservation and freshwater processing, when feasible, are generally considered to be more economically and environmentally friendly, according to Hiemstra.
Poseidon, however, argues desalination technology provides an inexhaustible supply of drought-resistant water and would be increasingly valuable whenever Orange County’s water supply becomes scarce during drought years.
Calls to Poseidon were not returned at press time.
Once Poseidon’s Huntington Beach desalination plant is online the Orange County Water District would enter into a “take-or-pay” agreement with the corporation. This agreement would require the water district to purchase, at taxpayer expense, all the water Poseidon produces for 50 years.
Poseidon claims the Huntington Beach plant would have a capacity to provide 50 million gallons of fresh drinking water to Orange County residents daily. The plant, according to a company statement, would not emit greenhouse gases and offset direct and indirect emissions.
The cost to provide enough water to a 200,000 to 400,000 residents in Orange County through Poseidon, according to IRWD, would be $1 billion – or about $1,900 per acre-foot. (Water from Poseidon’s desalination plant in Carlsbad currently costs the San Diego County Water Authority between $2,131 and $2,367 per acre-foot.)
Paying for 50 years of water from the desalination plant certainly benefits Poseidon. However what happens in non-drought years, when water from wholesale water suppliers and other regularly used sources becomes available at cheaper, pre-drought rates?
The Groundwater Replenishment System, for example, is a joint project of the Orange County Water District and Orange County Sanitation District and produces water $850 per acre-foot (without subsidies).
Municipal Water District of Orange County pays $979 per acre-foot for imported water, which is about half the amount Orange County Water District would pay for desalinated water from Poseidon.
Interestingly enough there are areas where desalination plants are working or have support of environmental groups and state regulators.
A desalination plant is already operational across the channel on Catalina Island, where Southern California Edison sporadically provides desalinated water to Avalon’s residents and visitors when necessary. Monterey Bay Aquarium successfully operates a desalination plant. However the water is used internally, not commercially or for public consumption.
Hiemstra added desalination is part of our future but plants work best where water options are extremely limited for decades. Desalination plants are not the ideal answer for areas where droughts occur cyclically, Heimstra continued.
“Where desalination works is some place where you exhausted all your other options,” Hiemstra told The Log, adding local, regional and state agencies should practice conservation and recycling as much as possible before exploring options to build a plant.
To his point the small desalination operations at Avalon, Dana Point and Monterey serve very specific needs. A desalination plant on Catalina Island, which primarily services the city of Avalon, is used on a limited basis. The city has instituted a water-rationing plan to address the island’s severe drought conditions.
The planned Doheny plant, which could be online in 2018, expects to produce up to 15 million gallons of water per day while following state guidelines and minimizing its greenhouse gas footprint.
Hiemstra pointed out the plant’s operators, an amalgam of water districts and cities, are not trying to make money but instead are filling a need. The plant would service an area with no aquifer and 80 to 100 percent of water used by locals must be imported.
Poseidon’s planned plant in Huntington Beach is a big concern among local environmentalists. Plans call for the plant to use an open ocean intake, which would negatively affect local marine life, according to Hiemstra.
Down in Dana Point the planned Doheny desalination plant would avoid using an open ocean intake and instead draw water from beneath the ocean floor.
“The Doheny Desalination project uses subsurface slant well technology to tap beneath San Juan Creek and under the ocean floor to draw ocean water through the naturally occurring sands and gravel, resulting in filtration and cleansing of the water,” the Municipal Water District of Orange County stated in a briefing paper on converting saltwater to freshwater in Dana Point.
“This process yields high-quality feed water that can go directly to reverse osmosis membrane treatment. This first step greatly reduces project costs by eliminating the need for costly pretreatment facilities and open-water intake systems,” the paper continued.
There’s also a question of the desalination plant’s greenhouse gas emissions footprint. Larger plants, environmentalists say, result in higher emissions – and hence place a greater strain on the environment.
One thing is for sure: desalination is a work in progress. A planned California Coastal Commission hearing on the Huntington Beach desalination plant was postponed so Poseidon and state officials could review the project
Carlsbad’s desalination plant launched operations in December 2015 and could provide water for up to 400,000 people. Poseidon would operate the plant and provide the San Diego County Water Authority for 30 years. The water authority, which approved the desalination plant in 2005 as part of its long-term strategy to diversify San Diego County’s water supply, can purchase the plant for $1 at the end of the 30-year agreement.
The Carlsbad plant, which cost $1 billion to build, would be able to produce 2 gallons of water for one cent, according to Poseidon. Local homeowners would see their water authority rates increase by $5 per month to pay for desalinated water, a Poseidon spokesperson added.
The State Water Resources Control Board found Poseidon violated its water permit at the Carlsbad plant 13 times since Sept. 17, 2015.
Violations included toxic brine discharge, dumping of contaminated water into storm drains and discoloration of the Pacific Ocean at the plant’s outfall.
Groups such as Orange County Coastkeeper are using these reported violations as evidence as to why Poseidon cannot move forward with its current plans to build a plant in Huntington Beach.
However state regulators certified the water supply from the Carlsbad desalination plant as “drought-resilient” in March 2016. The certification, according to the San Diego County Water Authority, allowed regional impacts from the state-imposed emergency water-use mandates to be reduced from 20 percent conservation to 13 percent.
Is desalination the answer? Or should we continue with conservation efforts and try other techniques first?