Drought puts new focus on proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach

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Last year was the driest on record in California.  And despite recent storms, 2014 has seen the drought intensify. As the state grapples with reduced water supply, desalination surfaces as one way to increase water reliability. A company building a desalination plant in Carlsbad has proposed one in Huntington Beach. But the project has been delayed over how that water is sucked from the ocean. 

Poseidon Water pulled its coastal development permit application during a November 2013 California Coastal Commission hearing after commission staff recommend approval only if the company were required to use intake pipes installed beneath the ocean floor to draw water from the sea. Poseidon proposed using existing open ocean intakes, which critics say harms marine life.

Scott Maloni with Poseidon Water said the company is now working with commission staff to study the use of subsurface intakes.

“Which involves a joint fact-finding process where the [Coastal Commission] staff and Poseidon would work with a third party facilitator that would manage an independent technical advisory panel that would evaluate the science and the feasibility behind building an alternative seawater intake system," said Maloni. 

He said that panel would likely be in place by the end of March and their review would take between four and six months.

"I think both sides want to avoid the 'he-said, she-said' and commit ourselves to an independent third-party process where somebody else is the arbiters of the science," Maloni said.  

He said the company has its own consultants studying whether subsurface intakes would be feasible with the expectation that their reports will be submitted to the technical panel.

Maloni also said Poseidon Water will likely re-submit its coastal development application to the commission before the end of 2014 after the panel completes its work.

California drought creates "sense of urgency"

While California's drought has created more buzz for desalination, Maloni said it's not generating "new" support for the Huntington Beach project. 

He says desalination has been talked about for decades. 

"The current drought is not the reason to build the desalination plant, but it certainly is a reminder why we need to diversify our water supply portfolio in California," Maloni said. "In the future these droughts will be longer in duration and more frequent." 

But he did say there is a "greater urgency in Sacramento over the need to get projects like the one in Huntington Beach built in a more timely manner."

Maloni said the Huntington Beach plant would be capable of producing 50 million gallons of fresh water a day for Orange County.

And one likely customer for that water is the Orange County Water District. The OCWD board members toured the Carlsbad desalination construction site on February 14.

Orange County Water District President Shawn Dewane said the district is considering buying all the desalted water a Huntington Beach plant would produce and sell it to the 19 cities and water districts it serves or to Southern Orange County agencies.

“The board mandate is to consider and enhance the water reliability for the service area of the Orange County Water District, and all technical and scientific solutions will be on the table,” Dewane said. “An important consideration is that any demand we can take off of the state or the Colorado River projects provides a regional benefit, not only for those in California but also for the surrounding states, Arizona and Nevada.” 

Dewane said the district's service area currently pays approximately $238 million for its water supply – of which 70 percent comes from a groundwater aquifer. Thirty percent is imported, a mix of Northern California and Colorado River water.

"The desalination project would add about $33 million in cost, which is a 14 percent increase," Dewane said. "The policy question for the area is: Is reducing the amount of imported water, which is necessary within OCWD's service area, by about 50 percent worth the 14 percent increase to our overall supply cost? If the area ever experiences a significant water shortage in the future, the answer will likely be yes."

But just when or if the desalted ocean water would be cheaper than imported supply can't be answered now. Dewane said desalination would be a hedge against water shortages.  

“When you consider the natural tension associated with the allocation of clean drinkable water around the region, and I’m including Nevada and Arizona, there is a natural tension there and the demands on these systems are not going to go down they are only going to go up,” Dewane said. “So, I think at some point in the future the consideration of ocean desalination will be a necessity.” 

Ocean desalination in Orange County: "logical solution" or "bad idea?"

Since 2008, the OCWD has purified treated wastewater at its Groundwater Replenishment System in Fountain Valley, sending it by pipe to recharge basins, where it percolates into the aquifer.  An on-going expansion of the plant is expected to boost production to 100 million gallons of water a day by the end of 2015. 

Dewane said ocean desalination seems like a logical solution for a region facing periodic droughts.

But Orange County Coastkeeper Executive Director Garry Brown questions whether the district needs that water.

"We've relied on the water district and on the collaboration of water districts," Brown said. "And they've done a very good job here.  Our tap water, I would say, is better than bottled water standards. And they've done a good job. Why all of a sudden does a company from the east, funded by Wall Street, need to come in and show them the way? They know the way." 

Brown said the ocean desalination project is a bad idea for Orange County. He said the desalted water would come at steep price to marine life, the climate and ratepayers. 

"Done correctly, maybe with some best available technology with minimizing the environmental impacts, there's a role for desalination to play in California's water portfolio. Does that mean Huntington Beach is the appropriate site, we think not at this point in time based on the project that they were presenting for approval." 

Orange County Water District's Shawn Dewane said he expects the costs of desalination will “come down” as the technology improves.

Poseidon Water's Scott Maloni agrees.

“It’s still a little bit more expensive today than imported water, but evolutions in the technology will make it more cost competitive as the years go by,” Maloni said. 

Maloni said the company intends to resubmit its coastal development permit for the Huntington Beach desalination plant to the Coastal Commission by the end of the year.  

It took a decades-long process, along with some legal challenges, for the company's Carlsbad desalination plant to get required approvals. The facility is now under construction and is expected to go online in 2016, producing 50 million gallons of fresh water a day. 

The proposed Huntington Beach desal project may follow the same timeline: Poseidon Water received its first permit for the project in 2006. 

Correction: A typo in a quote was corrected.

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