Environment & Science

With dwindling water supplies, Catalina seeks more desalination

A view from Catalina Island, looking over Avalon.
A view from Catalina Island, looking over Avalon.
scmtngirl/Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

00:54
Download this story 0MB

Los Angeles County supervisors are considering ways to aid desalination plans on Catalina Island, where supplier Southern California Edison is considering requiring unprecedented 50% cuts in water use.

The island is home to some 4,000 people year-round, and it boasts hotels and a harbor that collectively have invested $40 million to boost the number of visitors to around 700,000 a year.

What Catalina doesn’t have much of is water, which comes from a few wells and a desalination plant.

With a creeping drought, Catalina started conserving in 2013. Last August, Edison put a 25 percent cut in water usage into effect islandwide. Edison customers who exceed their water allotment can be punished with flow-restricting devices on their water lines plus a $200 fine.

Some hotels are shipping laundry to the mainland. Customers must ask for water and, in many cases, pay for it. Some restaurants even use plastic utensils to save on the cost of water for doing dishes.

https://twitter.com/jessnritz/status/594361528146534400

Those efforts are working. Since last August, Catalina’s water use has declined 34 percent, even as visitors increased more than 16 percent compared to before the drought.

Now Southern California Edison forecasts that, without more desalination capability or an El Niño condition to refill wells, Catalina may still have to go to 50 percent cuts in October — a prospect that has locals on edge.

“It is widely believed that additional conservation beyond what is currently being done will be difficult,” Avalon City Manager Ben Harvey wrote in a recent update to the Avalon City Council.

Edison's district manager, Ron Hite, admitted that island dwellers and visitors may be running out of water to cut. "The first two places you'd think to cut are in irrigation and in toilet flushes," he said. But, he pointed out that little of Catalina is irrigated, and "the majority of toilets in the city of Avalon are already using saltwater." 

Edison already operates a desalination plant at Catalina, capable of delivering about 200,000 gallons a day in fresh water supplies. The company is working with the City of Avalon toward getting another plant on line to double that amount. According to Hite, a new plant would cost $1.6 million, with costs to be shared among Edison and the city of Avalon. 

Hotel owners, restaurateurs and other businesses dependent on tourism say deeper cuts could harm business. "Certainly the great white hope is to avoid it through this emergency funding of secondary desal," says Jim Luttjohann, president of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce. 

Realtor and property manager Kevin Strege said 50 percent cuts might require reducing occupancy on the island by shutting down rentals and shuttering hotel rooms. "We will probably have to reduce occupancy somewhat," Strege said. "Now, exactly how we’d do that if need be, is not fully decided yet."

Strege says the talk in town, at restaurants and on the street, is about water. How to save it in buckets; how to shorten showers; how to wash everything from dishes to dogs in less of it. "Everybody's kind of watching everybody else," he says. "We make sure that everybody is compliant, I can tell you that." 

Los Angeles County Supervisors could look into assisting the partnership with permit support. A new desalination facility would require permission from the California Coastal Commission, as well as state and local water regulators. Or they could help with funding. Hite says Edison and Avalon welcome the supervisors' attention. 

"The impact is enormous," Hite said, "and that’s why we’re working so closely together, to put something in place."