The West Basin Municipal Water District in Carson, Calif., is working to develop new local water sources, including water recycling and stormwater capture, and is considering a project to turn ocean water into a new, drought-proof supply. The agency is working on an environmental impact report for the proposed desalination plant, which could cost up to $900 million to construct, depending on size, and would open in 2023.
The fight over desalination has finally arrived in Los Angeles County, Calif., the Los Angeles Times reported.
As Southern California grapples with declining imported supplies and climate change that could make droughts more severe, agencies such as the West Basin Municipal Water District in Carson, Calif., are working to develop new local sources, including water recycling and stormwater capture, the Times reported.
Some suppliers also want to tap the ocean. More than a dozen desalination projects—including West Basin’s proposal—are under consideration along the California coast, the Times reported.
In 2015, the largest coastal desalter in the country started operation in Carlsbad, Calif., where it produces 50 million gallons a day of drinking water for San Diego County. Poseidon Water, which built that facility, is pursuing permits for a similarly sized desalination plant in Orange County. If developed to full capacity, the South Bay project would be even bigger, the Times reported.
But as water agencies rush to pour millions of ratepayer dollars into such projects, some experts remain skeptical. A 2016 Stanford study concluded that although desalination may prove crucial for some coastal communities, it is plagued by problems that make it “unlikely to be a major part of California’s water supply portfolio,” the Times reported.
“Every area is a little bit different,” said Joshua Haggmark, water resources manager for Santa Barbara, which is spending at least $64 million to reactivate its decades-old desalination plant by spring. “It’s human nature to start second-guessing yourself.”
Santa Barbara hastily built the state’s first large municipal desalination plant during the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The drought ended just as the facility was nearing completion, and the plant was never used beyond the testing phase, the Times reported.
Since then, a handful of tiny plants popped up along the California coast, many of which were for industrial use. Soon after the Carlsbad plant opened, the San Diego County Water Authority was assailed for agreeing to buy Poseidon’s water, only to wind up with a 500-million-gallon surplus because drought-related conservation had driven down regional demand. Officials there say the situation was an anomaly, the Times reported.
“San Diego is living proof of the fact that desalination provides…a drought-proof supply of new water,” said Bob Yamada, the agency’s director of water resources.
The battleground has since shifted north to Huntington Beach, where Poseidon seeks to build another 50-million-gallon-per-day plant and sell the water to a local distributor. The company would have to ensure that its plant complied with strict new state desalination standards in order to win approvals from a regional water board and the California Coastal Commission, the Times reported.
Critics note that the cost of desalinated water is still about double that of imported water because it remains so energy intensive to produce, and that the process leaves a significant carbon footprint that contributes to climate change, the Times reported.
The extent of desalination’s impact on the ocean is less clear. The process involves taking water into the plant, stripping the water of its salt, and then discharging the salty brine that remains back into the ocean. The new state rules deal with both the intake and discharge methods, which can harm marine life, the Times reported.
Desalination “is not the worst environmental crime in the world, but it certainly has an impact,” said Heal the Bay’s Steven Johnson.
After years of research, West Basin is expected to release an environmental impact report for its proposed project this winter. The plant will produce either 20 million gallons of desalinated water a day or 60 million, depending on whether West Basin can find a business partner. If a 60-million-gallon-per-day facility opened today, it would become the largest in North and South America, according to data provided by the International Desalination Assn. and DesalData.com.
Agency officials say the plant would cost either $400 or $900 million to construct, depending on its size, and would not open until 2023. At that point, officials project that their 1 million customers would see bills increase between $3 and $5 a month, the Times reported.
West Basin, a public agency that provides wholesale drinking and recycled water to much of southwest Los Angeles County, would prefer to build the plant on the industrially zoned site of a power plant in El Segundo that abuts a popular surf spot and Manhattan Beach. Three miles away, the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant discharges as much as 250 million gallons of treated wastewater into the ocean each day. Environmentalists cringe when they envision all that reusable water getting dumped into the sea, only to have it sucked back up and desalted, the Times reported.
Johnson and Bruce Reznik, head of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, say that water agencies such as West Basin should maximize water recycling, stormwater capture and conservation before turning to desalination as a last resort. If West Basin’s environmental impact report fails to analyze water recycling as an alternative to desalination, “we’re going to sue,” Reznik said.
West Basin General Manager Rich Nagel said he believes those avenues have largely been exhausted. The district already recycles up to 40 million gallons of Hyperion’s wastewater each day for use on golf courses, in cooling towers and in refineries. But under current state rules, customers can’t drink recycled water until it is filtered through the ground or diluted in reservoirs, so Nagel says desalination is necessary to boost the agency’s drinkable supply, the Times reported.
Like their counterparts in Los Angeles, West Basin officials want to cut their imported water purchases in half, and getting 10% to 15% of their water from a desalination plant would boost that effort, the Times reported.
“It’s drought security; it’s drought resiliency,” Nagel said. “If we don’t do projects like this and do nothing, by the year 2035, we’re going to have to ration water eight out of every 10 years. That’s unacceptable for our society.”
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