New water desalination test site dedicated in Redondo Beach

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Susan Valot/KPCC

The West Basin Municipal Water District desalination plant into Redondo Beach is an old electrical pump house filled with filters and pipes for desalination.

Dignitaries from around the South Bay and the state gathered in Redondo Beach today to dedicate a new water desalination plant. The West Basin Municipal Water District plans to use the small, $10-million facility as a test site for the next couple of years.

The desalination plant is in an old pump house across from the AES Redondo Generating Station and within sight of Redondo’s Wyland whale mural. Inside, machines and large tubes whir.

It can take in about 580,000 gallons of water, but will treat only about 100,000 of that.

The West Basin Municipal Water District’s Rich Nagel says for now, none of that will end up in the water supply because this is only a test site.

"It’s the final step on the journey to full scale," Nagel says. "So it’s to scientifically address the concerns both institutionally or otherwise that have been expressed throughout the last decade or so. The concerns have been environmental. Concerns have been energy use. The concerns have been cost. So this facility is directly set up to address those main concerns before we go full scale."

Phil Lauri, who is the principal engineer on the project, says desalination has been around a while, but is being put on the front burner as California deals with having access to less water.

"Around the world, this is been done for decades. It's been done, like if you're taking a cruise, desalination is how they treat the water on a cruise ship. The Navy has used it for decades," Lauri says. "The Middle East, Asia, all over the world -- Australia has gone through and put $9-billion in the last four years in building. They have such huge drought conditions there, that they've actually spent a ton of money because they've had to address their water shortage issues."

But environmentalists still have concerns about the desal plant’s effects on marine life.

Conner Everts of the Desal Response Group, a Santa Monica-based environmental group, says he’s not so sure a small plant will be able to address concerns about desalination.

"We don’t doubt that small-scale desal plants work. But we do question when you build them larger and larger," Everts says. "You start having larger impacts and larger problems. So a demonstration, which we’ve actually promoted, but we want to make sure they ask the right questions and are transparent about it. It doesn’t really solve the issues you might have when it becomes a full-scale plant. What we don’t know here in Redondo Beach is whether this is going to be 10-, 20-, or 100-million gallons a day because we’ve heard all of those talked about."

Everts suggests it’s better to find new ways to conserve water than spend millions to strain the salt from sea water.

"What we don't want is for this to be a stranded asset -- perpetuate the old power plant here, on one side," Everts says as he points at the AES power station. "And at the same time, not provide real water that people then become dependent on. And that's what's happened in Santa Barbara and that's what's happening in Australia, even after their long drought."

Everts says desal projects in Santa Barbara and Yuma got green lights years ago, but then ended up failing. He considers that to be money that could have been spent on conservation efforts or on reclaiming wastewater, like they do at the Orange County Sanitation District in Fountain Valley.

Opponents have similar concerns about the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Plans for that proposed plant have yet to go to the California Coastal Commission. That's not expected until at least next year.

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