By Joe Geever
Special to the Surf City Voice
Some of Orange County’s water managers and politicians insist that a proposed partnership between Poseidon Resources Inc. and the Orange County Water District to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach is a good deal at even three or more times the $600 an-acre-foot price currently paid by OCWD for imported water.
That’s a great price to pay for a reliable source of water during shortages caused by drought, earthquakes, and population growth, they say, because it would protect our economy and general welfare.
Opponents of the Poseidon project, however, argue that we already have reliable water sources that could be strengthened by minor management changes.
Conservation, rainwater retention, and expanded wastewater recycling are suggested as cheaper alternatives to ocean desalination.
Those proposed changes are much more cost effective than desalination and would help to maintain a reliable marine life population along the California coast.
Now a new idea has come forth from one of the County’s most experienced water managers, Peer Swan, who serves on the Irvine Ranch Water District Board of Directors.
Speaking to over 200 Orange County residents at a town-hall meeting in Huntington Beach on March 4, Swan explained how a commonsense change in the way we manage our groundwater basin and water imports could provide all the reliability we need, avoiding nearly $1 billion in desalination costs every 10 years.
On average, north Orange County gets about 70 percent of its water by pumping it from the groundwater basin. The 30 percent difference is made up with water purchases that member agencies make from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
OCWD manages the basin to prevent excessive overdraft, but not necessarily to maximize its potential capacity.
There are three major sources of water used to recharge the basin: 1) rainfall/Santa Ana river flows; 2) the Ground Water Replenishment System (turning waste water into drinking water); and, 3) imported water from MWD.
Swan’s solution for water reliability is simple.
Historically, severe drought has caused MWD to reduce water allocations in one out of 15 years. To be conservative, Swan assumed water rationing in two out of ten years.
If OCWD and its member agencies withdrew less water from the basin during the eight years that have rain while maximizing their use of imported water, the basin would be full for dry periods, acting as our water reliability “insurance” policy during years of water rationing.
The groundwater basin, our water bank, eliminates any need to create additional “reliability” supplies at enormous cost.
Before shifting an exorbitant $1 billion insurance policy to the ratepayers, water managers should thoroughly analyze all of the commonsense alternatives.
But the OCWD’s board of directors has been loath to use commonsense over the past year, rushing toward a draft contract with Poseidon, while limiting transparency and public discussion of important issues left unanswered.
(The Draft Term Sheet be discussed by the board this Wednesday, March 18, 5:30 p.m. at 18700 Ward St. in Fountain Valley).
Ratepayers want reduced water bills. Conservationists want reduced environmental impacts. These two constituencies are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but Swan’s commonsense approach would answer both of their concerns.
It is simply not good enough for our elected representatives on water boards to respond with the hollow claim that, “Even if we did all the alternatives first, we still need the water Poseidon is offering.”
Without numbers and analysis attached to that unsupported claim, we shouldn’t give Poseidon our trust, or our money.
Poseidon is pushing OWCD hard to sign a “take or pay” contract—the ratepayers must buy its boutique water even in the 14 years that it isn’t needed (assuming it ever would be).
But as ratepayers in Australia recently learned, racing to build desalination facilities before exhausting better alternatives has turned out to be short sighted and costly for ratepayers who were forced to take water they didn’t need after all.
If OCWD signs Poseidon’s proposed “take or pay” contract before implementing preferable alternatives, Australia’s costly lesson on water mismanagement will have been lost at the expense of Orange County’s ratepayers.