According to the South Coast Water District (SCWD), ocean water desalination would provide San Clemente with a safe, reliable, drought-proof, and locally controlled water supply. Therefore, the SCWD continues to evaluate an ocean water desalination project as a local, drought-proof, high-quality water supply.
DANA POINT— The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project looks as if it’s making progress as the plant won its first state approval without difficulty– now the South Coast Water District proposal needs two more approvals and to gather some partners for the project.
A desalination plant proposed near Doheny State Beach in Dana Point was unanimously approved on March 9 for the first of three necessary state permits after sailing through the San Diego Regional Water Control Board hearing on March 9 with no significant concerns raised by either the board or the public.
The approval from the March 9 hearing could signal a smooth regulatory path ahead for the Doheny project proposed by the SCWD. However, the small district continues to seek financial partners among neighboring water agencies and beyond to bring down customer costs.
“The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project will be built on an existing South Coast Water District property in Dana Point, with underground infrastructure nearby at Doheny State Beach,” said the March 10 press release put out by the San Diego Water Board.
The project, which will construct a facility on SCWD-owned property near San Juan Creek to draw water through the ocean, remove all the salt, and distribute clean drinking water throughout the district and partnering entities, has been in the works for more than 15 years.
The projected $120 million facility will produce up to five million gallons per day of potable water, enough for 35,000 individuals, with the potential for a daily supply of up to 15 million gallons, furthering the state’s efforts to secure alternative sources to combat climate change impacts threatening water supplies.
Currently, the district imports 85 to 100 percent of its drinking water from Northern California and the Colorado River and serves approximately 40,000 residents and businesses in Dana Point, South Laguna, and parts of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. The permit issued to the South Orange County Wastewater Authority, a joint powers authority responsible for wastewater treatment and effluent discharges in a 200-square mile service area, authorizes a combined discharge of approximately 43.8 million gallons per day from several member agency sources to the San Juan Creek Ocean Outfall.
Rick Erkeneff, president of the SCWD Board of Directors, said on March 3 that the temperament of the board and staff is “full steam ahead” and that the project is always at the top of their list of yearly strategic planning priorities.
SCWD has discussed partnering with others to accomplish the project. According to Sheena Johnson, Public Information Specialist for South Coast Water District, there have been talks with local municipal retail water providers (i.e., water districts and cities) to provide desalinated drinking water to additional communities, other than just South Coast Water District’s service area. By constructing a larger desalination facility and having more consumers of the desalinated water, the overall unit cost of the desalinated water is reduced (i.e., $ per gallon).
As the district faces a lengthy permitting process, SCWD officials have begun meeting with local legislators and officials, including San Clemente council members, to gauge support and discuss the early stages of potential partnerships.
“The project is currently in the planning/permitting phase.,” said Johnson in an email from March 22. “We received the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which is administered by South Orange County Wastewater Authority (SOCWA), from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board on March 9 and are looking to obtain State Lands Commission and Coastal Commission approvals by the end of the summer.”
Having support from other regional entities is “crucial,” Erkeneff said, as it implies that the district will not be alone in the process for much longer. In addition, he added that it would make logical sense to partner with San Clemente, which largely relies on imported water coming from North Orange County for much of its supply.
All but one of the council members have met individually with SCWD to learn about the research the district had completed in terms of an environmental and financial analysis.
Knowing SCWD was looking to join another entity to build the plant and believing that San Clemente could use the potential water source one day, Councilmember Steven Knoblock has advocated for taking the initial steps toward such a collaboration.
At the council’s last meeting on March 1, Knoblock proposed an invitation for district representatives to present the project to the elected officials and the public and created a schedule for a staff report on the matter.
Knoblock recently wrote in a column for the San Clemente Times about the state of the city’s water supply and made a case for partnering with SCWD to share the cost and the benefits of the project.
SCWD has featured the facility’s components that would pacify environmentalists’ concerns, such as slant wells built at around a 10- to 12-degree angle that go down about 1,000 feet, according to Rick Shintaku, the district’s general manager.
“The Doheny Desalination Project utilizes the California Ocean Plan preferred methods for both seawater intakes and brine discharge, namely, subsurface intakes and commingling the brine with wastewater,” said Johnson. “The Doheny project will use subsurface slant wells to draw seawater slowly through the ocean floor and into the wells, where it will be pumped to the Desalination Facility. This type of intake eliminates any harm to marine life.
The brine will be commingled and diluted with wastewater from a nearby wastewater treatment plant and discharged 2 miles offshore, which complies with the California Ocean Plan to protect marine life.”
The wells would draw up water at a slow velocity in a way that would not negatively affect marine life.
Additionally, as the plant’s membranes would separate the clean water from the remaining salty wastewater, the wastewater would be directed through an outfall two miles into the ocean to “co-mingle” with the other waste substances produced by the nearby JB Latham Treatment Plant.
Ray Hiemstra, associate director of programs for Orange County Coastkeeper, a nonprofit clean water organization, said the project has support from Coastkeeper and other groups because it complies with desalination plant requirements listed by the California Ocean Plan.
“This particular plant follows the spirit and the letter of that (plan), all the way through,” Hiemstra said. “That’s why we don’t oppose this one … because it meets all of the state’s goals for a desalination plant without trying to game the system.”
The pipelines that deliver water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to South Orange County, the SCWD, and San Clemente converge with the desalination facility’s property. According to the district, this saves the district and the city from having to build additional infrastructure.
SCWD’s current plant, near San Juan Creek, produces approximately 10 percent of the water supplied to the area that generally consists of a small portion of San Clemente.
With the new structure that could provide up to five million gallons per day (MGD), the district and San Clemente could split the water relatively equally, as Erkeneff said SCWD uses around 2.2 MGD. Then, the remaining supply could be distributed to other agencies, such as the Metropolitan District.
Erkeneff said that now it is necessary to meet with regional officials because, in previous years, when SCWD did not have permits and thus had no project, it made no sense to try and bring other partners on board. As a result, the district is ratcheting the pace for the next six to nine months.
The district will meet with the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board to discuss topics such as mitigation of the project’s environmental costs included in the permit.
Every project within California’s coastal zone, governed by the Coastal Advisory Commission, must include actions that will give back to the local community to reconcile any potential damage done to environmentally sensitive habitats or similar areas.
Erkeneff mentioned putting money toward an enhanced pedestrian bike trail system, with connectivity between cities, as an option.
Support-wise, Rep. Mike Levin has secured about $20 million in federal funding for the project, such as the $8.3 million grant from the Water Improvement Infrastructure for the Nation Act, and pushed for other financings to come to SCWD.
Lisa Bartlett, Orange County Board supervisor of the Fifth District, has also expressed support for the plant to provide a “reliable” water source and remain sensitive to marine life.
The district has also secured more than $30 million in combined state and federal funding for the near-$120 million project cost, per a SCWD Board of Directors meeting in October 2019.
The project is expected to come with increased water bills for taxpayers. However, Erkeneff and Shintaku noticed that when district residents were surveyed about the plant in June 2020, SCWD found a high “appetite for water.”
FM3 Research surveyed a random sample of 413 residents within the district. Of those who had somewhat heard about the facility previously, 64 percent favored the project, and 74 percent of the total respondents favored the projects after hearing a brief description.
The estimated increase of a water bill for SCWD residents ranged from $2.38 to $2.50, and the majority of those surveyed said they would also be willing to pay upward of $15 per month to build the project itself.
Shintaku cautioned that there would be several variables that would go into determining rates for San Clemente citizens.
Knoblock said the importance of having a nearby desalination plant independent of the Metropolitan Water District, which takes water from the Colorado River, lies in the area’s vulnerability if the Metropolitan’s pipelines are ever disrupted by drought or by a manufactured or natural disaster, including seismic events.
Knoblock added that San Clemente is in a favorable position to be located near quintillions of gallons of water “right at our doorstep,” which allows them to produce “unlimited” fresh drinking water to the city and its neighbors.
“South Orange County is over 90 percent dependent on imported water from the Colorado River and Northern California for our drinking water needs,” said Johnson. “With imported water supply risks from ongoing drought and potential interruptions caused by earthquakes, wildfires, or other natural disasters, the Doheny Desalination Project provides a drought-proof, locally controlled water supply which increases reliability in a cost-effective manner.”
According to the SCWD website, its goal is to obtain all state and federal permits in 2022.
According to Johnson, the next steps in the project are “developing the contract to procure a consultant firm(s) for Design and Construction. This will only happen after our Board’s approval and all permits are obtained.”