Orange County Tries for "Drought-Proof" Desalination Plant

Discussion started by robweather 3 years ago

The once-thought concept of removing salt from seawater is new again as the search intensifies in California for drought-proof sources of water.

In Carlsbad, a large scale desalination factory is within two years of delivering 50 million gallons of drinking quality tap water from the ocean every day, according to the plant's developer.

One county to the north, the Orange County Water District is considering committing financial backing and a long-term water purchase agreement to enable a sister plant to be built in Huntington Beach, though the project is not without opposition and has yet to obtain a final permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Environmental challenges have been raised on a number of issues. But the biggest hurdles for desalination is its premium price, the expense both of building plants, and of the enormous amounts of energy required to run them.

A desalination plant built two decades ago in Santa Barbara remains an unused white elephant -- partially dismantled -- because the city found cheaper sources of water.

Behind both the Carlsbad and Huntington Beach projects is Boston-based Poseidon Water. Both have similar designs, and would draw in ocean water through the existing intake systems for the cooling systems of nearby power plants.

That design was approved for Carlsbad. But for Huntington Beach, the Coastal Commission cited concerns for fish larvae being sucked into the plant and instructed Poseidon to submerge the inlet or find another alternative to protect the larvae.  

 

"We want better technology," said Ray Hiemstra of Orange County Coastkeeper

That likely would further raise the cost of a plant already projected at close to a billion dollars.

Before proceeding in Carlsbad, Poseidon reached an agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority to back a majority of the financing, and to purchase water for 30 years.

At full capacity, the Carslbad plant would provide 7 percent of San Diego County's current water needs. But its price premium compared to imported water is projected to push up the typical home's water bill by $5 to $7 a month, according to the San Diego Water Authority.

"It does cost more to desalinate water," said Peter MacLaggan, Poseidon senior vice president for project development. "But the incremental cost for that bucket of water is a tremendous insurance policy. It will always be there."

The drought has dramatically reduced the availability of surface water imported from the Colorado River and from the State Water Project that draws on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada in Northern California.

Poseidon and the San Diego Water Authority believe the cost gap will narrow and eventually cross in the middle of the next decade.

Water from the Huntington Beach plant is projected to cost the OC Water District about 50 percent more than the current cost for state water project water, according to Shawn Dewane, president of the Orange County Water Authority board.

Taking off his Coastkeeper hat for a moment and speaking as a Huntington Beach resident, Heimstra observed:  "As a rate-payer, I'm very concerned about an increase in my rates." 

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