On March 11, the San Diego Union-Tribune posted an op-ed, “Desalination makes sense for Orange County”, written by Assemblywoman Pat Bates (Laguna Niguel). It is unclear why she was addressing the California Coastal Commission since the project was not on its March agenda.
The paper chose not to allow comments on her article. So here is my response to her piece which reads as if lifted from a Poseidon Resources press release.
She goaded me from her first sentence: “Anyone who has stepped outside in the past year has undoubtedly seen the effects of our state’s historic drought conditions.”
Perhaps Ms. Bates should take a look around her own district before she goes off with her dire news of “empty reservoirs, dry wells, and brown, arid landscapes across California.”
Orange County is the poster child of disregard for the drought: lush green expanses of grass in front of strip malls, road medians, HOAs, government facilities, and private properties. Any claim she makes that Orange County has “tried” to do its part is laughable.
It is interesting that Ms. Bates would chime in on a project outside her district that runs roughly from Dana Point to Cardiff by the Sea in San Diego County. Her district imports nearly 100 percent of its water. North Orange County imports only 30 percent and it could be zero if we managed the groundwater basin equitably.
“Trying” isn’t good enough, especially when it places the burden of costly boutique desalinated water on those who are actually “doing” something.
Residents of Santa Ana and Westminster are close to an ideal goal of consumption of 100 gallons per person per day. At the other extreme are communities like Villa Park and Northern San Diego County, where 500 gallons per person per day is the norm.
Why is 100 gallons per person per day ideal? Because at that level, North Orange County could get nearly 100 percent of its water from the groundwater basin.
The manner of water allocation used by the Orange County Water District and its member agencies places a disproportionately higher cost burden on those who consume the least amount of water. In effect, those who aren’t just “trying” but are implementing conservation will be subsidizing the explosive costs of ocean desalinated water.
And if North Orange County goes all in for an ocean desalination project, will Ms. Bates be sponsoring a bill to enable the OCWD rate payer to subsidize water sales to South Orange County water agencies?
Ms. Bates then goes on to cheer lead for desalination: “Southern California communities have rallied behind desalinated ocean water as a reliable, safe and environmentally friendly solution to long-term water shortages.”
It is interesting to note that a small consortium of communities in her own district have spent millions of dollars building and evaluating a pilot project in Dana Point only to discover they couldn’t “rally” enough support for such an expensive endeavor.
Ms. Bates reports on the “nearly completed” project in Carlsbad. But we are still waiting to see how the San Diego County Water Authority allocates the costs of this project, a painful task they have been discussing and postponing since 2012. The devil is in the details, details that were not sorted out prior to signing a “take or pay” contract.
Ms. Bates calls desalination “out of the box” thinking but in reality it is a knee jerk reaction by politicians who have ignored California’s failed water policies, archaic water laws, and fractured governance.
Addressing long term water needs requires long term thinking which will never be the domain of politicians in Sacramento.
It is much easier for elected officials to apply a “technical” fix knowing they will be out of office before the bill arrives.
What we need are courageous politicians who dare to engage with citizens in understanding and exploring solutions that actually address water needs and not water wants.
North Orange County does not need an ocean desalination project and hasn’t even figured out what they would do with the water. If Ms. Bates thinks one is needed in South Orange County, then she should address her own district’s needs first.
Lately, southern California’s top water official, John V. Foley, has been explaining his apparent violations of a state law that requires public officials to disclose their economic interests.
Foley is chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
The Surf City Voice recently reported that Foley, who was appointed to the MWD by the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), failed to report an estimated $248,000 of income that his wife, Mary Jane Foley, earned as a consultant for various water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, going back to 2004. That disclosure came from public records obtained by the Voice.
Now, more public records obtained since then reveal that Foley also failed to report over $15,000 of his own income as a private consultant for the Moulton Niguel Water District (Moulton) in south Orange County going back to late 2008.
His failure to report that income was “an oversight,” Foley told the Voice.
An Irvine water official recently let members of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) board know that their public relations efforts on behalf of ocean desalination aren’t necessarily welcomed in his agency’s jurisdiction, which stretches across the county’s mid-section as its largest water district.
MWDOC is the retailer for 28 water agencies throughout the county.
Open dissent by local water officials toward ocean desalination projects is rarely if ever heard at MWDOC meetings, where the belief that such projects, however costly, are a vital part of a larger water portfolio is all but officially treated as sacrosanct.
The official, Peer Swan, one of five directors for the Irvine Ranch Water District, spoke out at a monthly meeting of MWDOC’s Public Affairs and Legislation Committee held on Monday, Dec. 19. He told the board that the agencies that don’t agree with the premise of the PR campaign should be able to opt out.
“I would expect that you would respect your customer’s request not to go in and do a PR campaign on something they don’t support,” Swan said.
MWDOC’s directors were discussing plans to increase their efforts to educate county residents about the supposed needs for ocean desalination in Orange County.
MWDOC wants to convince county residents that desalinated ocean water will guarantee them an endless and reliable supply of drinking water during future water shortages to be caused – inevitably – by droughts or by earthquakes that will break water supply lines; or worse, cause the collapse of the California Delta, which supplies about half of Orange County’s water.
MWDOC is pushing two major ocean desalination projects in Orange County. One of them would be in Huntington Beach where Poseidon Resources, Inc. won approval by the city to build (with the help of huge public subsidies) one of the largest and costliest desalination plants in the western hemisphere (the other, similar plant, would be built by Poseidon in Carlsbad in San Diego County)—after offering tax increments and other financial benefits.
Poseidon is stumbling its way through the final stages of the permit process but still lacks private financing. MWDOC is seeking $350 million in public assistance to make the project cost effective for the company and to attract the private investors that it (Poseidon) needs to move forward.
The other, smaller project, which is backed by five south county water agencies, would be publicly owned and located adjacent to San Juan Creek on property that is owned by South Coast Water District.
Unlike the Poseidon plant, which would suck in over 100 million gallons of sea water a day through the intake pipes used by a huge power plant, its ocean intake system would be buried under the beach at Dana Point, where a pilot plant already is operating.
Far from shovel ready, the Dana Point desalination project seems headed for a decision by the local agencies sometime in 2012. From that point it would move into the final design stage and permitting by the relevant government bodies. Construction would start in the 2017 or 2018, according to project manager Karl Seckel.
MWDOC’s staff provided details of the agency’s strategy for gaining public support for the Dana Point project at the meeting.
“We have been working with the project participants to begin getting either letters of support or formal endorsements from community groups, business organizations, and environmental groups within their area, but also county wide,” explained David Cordero, MWDOC’s Director of Governmental Affairs.
Responding to Swan, General Manager Kevin Hunt elaborated on the broader scope of MWDOC’s outreach efforts, including the Poseidon project, which 21 county water agencies, including IRWD, have indicated an interest in, however tenuous. Very few of those agencies disagree with continuing to discuss ocean desalination “as a viable option county wide,” he said.
MWDOC Director Wayne Clark, whose district makes up about half of the IRWD service area, took umbrage with Swan’s suggestion that MWDOC was out of touch. “I represent Irvine as well as other areas and I think that I’m quite capable of communicating with my own constituents,” he said.
But Swan persisted. “We’re in negotiations with Poseidon,” he said. “Until we get a negotiated contract, I think that using the MO that they used in San Diego, creating a tsunami before the agencies approve things, is an inappropriate thing in Orange County.”
Swan told the Voice after the meeting that he doesn’t want the county’s water agencies to be boxed into supporting programs that don’t make much sense. And he thinks there should be a defined program with agreed upon principles and financing before MWDOC or its agencies seek public support for it.
Swan is personally opposed to both ocean desalination plants but not for any of the environmental reasons often listed by other opponents, who are concerned that, especially in the case of Poseidon, marine life will be killed by the associated intake and outflow systems. He is opposed because he believes that neither project will fulfill its intended purpose—to provide a needed or cost-effective water supply.
An ocean desalination plant by its nature has to run 24/7, an expensive operation, Swan says; but the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET), MWDOC’s umbrella agency, “already provides a reliable supply for water for South County 98 percent of the time at a fraction of the cost of the [Dana Point] desal plant.”
And South County residents would be subject to any water shortages (including rationing) that the MET would apply uniformly as a matter of policy, he adds.
“So the plan itself doesn’t supply water in the event of shortages,” Swan said. “A couple of hundred million dollars for a very small amount of water is a very expensive project for shortages. And there are much cheaper alternatives to provide reliability to South County which have not been as actively pursued.”
There is no need for the Poseidon project either, according to Swan, because it would serve an area that already gets 70 – 80 percent of its water from an existing underground water supply that could provide 100 percent of the water needed in an emergency.
“What these projects will do is provide an expensive new source of water for MET that the local agencies will pay for,” Swan says. “It will add reliability to the MET system because if you produce water in Huntington Beach or Dana Point, MET will no longer need to supply them because there is cheaper water elsewhere. Thank you very much!”
In this election season, as Orange County voters are constantly warned about government overspending, including bullet train boondoggles, ocean desalination critics like Swan may have found a crack in the veneer of unanimity that MWDOC uses as a cloak to protect and promote its desal dreams.
A new poll, conducted for MWDOC by Lewis Consulting, with a sample of 500 registered Orange County voters, shows a statistically significant decline in support for ocean desalination—from 73 percent in 2008 to 63 percent last October.
In each case the respondents were asked, “When thinking about increasing Orange County’s water supply, do you think ocean desalination is a good idea or a bad idea?”
Sixty-three percent is still a landslide of public support for ocean desalination, but that support might not all be transferable to MWDOC’s two ocean desalination projects, which the 500 voters weren’t asked about.
In fact, there may be a lot of leverage for critics of the Poseidon and Dana Point desalination proposals provided by the questions that, so far, pollsters haven’t asked the public.
MWDOC Director Larry Dick, a stalwart supporter of both projects and ocean desalination in general, may have unintentionally revealed that opening at a Nov. 21 board meeting after the poll’s presenter, John Lewis, explained that seniors, at 75 percent, were more likely than any other group to believe that ocean desalination was a good idea.
Dick asked Lewis if, “The seniors who are so in favor of desalination—are they aware of how much it is going to cost versus other things [water supply sources]?”
“No,” Lewis answered, adding that obtaining an in-depth look at voter sentiments would require asking questions that add the necessary information.
Like, “Would you feel the same way if you knew it was going to cost 40 percent more?”
“Exactly,” Lewis said.
Photo, top right: Mobile testing facility for Dana Point ocean desalination project. Courtesy MWDOC
The pilot desalination plant under construction in Dana Point, just off of Pacific Coast Highway and next to Doheny State Beach, will test environmental data to determine the design of a larger facility in the future that will create 15 million gallons of drinking water per day from ocean water, meeting 25 percent of the supply needs for five partner cities or water districts that together will form the South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination Project.
The desalination plant is being created by the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) with funding assistance from various other government agencies.
Unlike the two desalination plants proposed by Poseidon Resources Inc. to be built in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad, the Dana Point facility is publicly owned and will not use a water intake system that kills countless marine life organisms and is being phased out by new environmental regulations. That system is used by power generating companies to keep their plants cool, and Poseidon hopes to piggy back on it to supply 100 million gallons of seawater to each of its desalination plants daily in order to create 50 million gallons of drinking water.
Recently created state regulations covering power generating plants would require the “best technology available for minimizing environmental impact,” or a reduction in water intake in order not to exceed the maximum environmental impact allowed. That would for all practical purposes end that “once-through-cooling” process which is currently used by the power generating plants in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad and that Poseidon plans to plug into. The new standard must be met by 2020. Continue reading ‘Responsible’ Desalination Comes to Dana Point→