As California's drought lingers, desalination remains hot topic
With California's drought in full swing and a statewide policy taking shape, 2014 is stacking up to be a critical year for desalination in the Golden state.
To recap, last November the California Coastal Commission postponed a decision on approving a Coastal Development Permit for the private corporation Poseidon Water to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Through early 2014, activists have been waiting for the State Water Resources Control Board to complete their draft of a statewide desalination policy that would guide the development of desalination plants throughout California. At the same time, Poseidon has been pushing the Orange County Water District to move forward with a deal to buy the full capacity of desalinated water produced by the Huntington Beach plant.
California's water use
In California as a whole, 77% of water goes to agriculture and 13% goes to residential use, according to a UCLA report from 2009. In the South Coast Hydrologic Region, California‘s most urbanized and populous region, a whopping 54% of water goes to residential use. The region covers 11,000 square miles or 7 percent of the state‘s total land and extends from the Pacific Ocean east to mountains of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, and from the Ventura Santa Barbara County line south to the international border with Mexico. It includes all of Orange County and portions of Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego counties.
Who's using all that SoCal water? This water guzzler graphic that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year shows the average California uses 196 gallons of water per capita per day. But pool-studded Palm Springs drinks up 736 gallons per capita per day and industrialized Vernon -- worst in the state -- uses 94,111 gallons per capita per day.
Poseidon's interest in desal
After the Coastal Commission decision slowed plans, Poseidon began to work with the commission to determine the best design for their proposed desalination plant. Earlier this year, the company came to an agreement with the Coastal Commission to convene an expert panel to determine the feasibility of using subsurface intakes at the proposed plant. In June, the panel met for the first time in Huntington Beach and heard information from Poseidon, the Coastal Commission staff and the public.
For the first time, Poseidon admitted that a subsurface intake is technically feasible at Huntington Beach, something that they had denied for 15 years. A subsurface intake would be more environmentally friendly to ocean dwellers. This was all the result of the commission doing a thorough job of investigating the project and following through on its conclusions. The panel is still meeting as of this date and a final report is anticipated for the fall.
What's happening in Carlsbad
The San Jose newspaper also reported about another Poseidon plant recently built in Carlsbad. "Will California -- like Israel, Saudi Arabia and other arid coastal regions of the world -- finally turn to the ocean to quench its thirst? Or will the project finally prove that drinking Pacific seawater is too pricey, too environmentally harmful and too impractical for the Golden State?" the story asks. Desalinated water would cost roughly $2,000 an acre foot, a very pricey fix for the state that doesn't seem to want to or be able to stop watering its lawns.
In the meantime, the State Water Resources Control Board had been taking their time in developing a draft statewide desalination policy. On July 3 they released a report that was quite a shock to all involved in the process. The water board staff threw out two years of stakeholders meetings and studies that had concluded that clear direction on desalination plant design was needed from the state board and that subsurface intakes were the best available technology.
The draft policy instead leaves the determination of the best design to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and only identifies subsurface intakes as the "preferred" technology for desalination. This leaves the door open for desalination proponents to game the system by proposing all kinds of options and leaving it to understaffed and inexperienced regional board staff to figure out if it is the best technology to protect water quality and marine life. The policy as written is a gift to desalination developers and a serious threat to the environment. The State Water Board is taking comments on the draft policy until August 19. See agency's Ocean Standards web page for all the details.
Pressure for the plant
As if all this was not enough, Poseidon is pushing their project forward at the Orange County Water District (OCWD). Late last year, some OCWD board members that support the Poseidon Huntington Beach proposal started working to have the district investigate the idea of purchasing the full capacity of the plant. This year, they have redoubled their efforts, and OCWD has now hired the same consultants that helped Poseidon cut a deal with the San Diego Water District for their Carlsbad plant to do the investigation for OCWD.
This action was taken in spite of the huge outpouring of opposition to the idea, especially from Sierra Club members. At the meeting where the decision to move forward was made, 10 people spoke against the project and only one supported it. Also, more than 300 letters were received by the Orange County water agency opposing the project and only four supported it. It is unbelievable that the board would move forward against such public opposition, but it did. OCWD is now on a schedule to make a decision on whether to commit to buying the full capacity of the Poseidon project in August of this year.
So it is clear that the desalination issue is far from settled, and there is still much work to be done to protect the environment from poorly designed projects. To be clear: It's not that desalination should not be considered as a water source. But the issue is that the sites and designs selected need to be as protective of water quality and marine life as possible. All involved need to consider the massive energy needs of desalination and its effects on climate change.
So in the near future keep an eye out for action alerts on the statewide desalination process and the Orange County Water District. And if you think this issue does not involve you, you're wrong. There are currently 16 proposed desalination plants for California, including a big one for L.A. County, and more are sure to come. This issue will only grow bigger with the drought and other water woes in California.