Key Vote for Doheny Desalination Plant Next Thursday – Orange County Register

The California Coastal Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a critical permit for a project that would pull seawater through the sands off the coast of Dana Point, clean it and use it to boost water supplies to communities across Southern California.

A dozen desalination plants are now licensed to convert seawater into drinking water in California, from Carlsbad in the south to Monterey Bay in the north. A year ago there were three new desalination projects in Southern California alone. But only one remains viable: the Doheny Desalination Plant being developed by the South Coast Water District.

In December, the West Basin Water District Board of Directors shelved a 20-year-old plan to build a desalination plant off the coast of El Segundo. The agency said improvements in water recycling and conservation meant the project, which is expected to cost more than half a billion dollars, no longer made sense.

Then, in May, the Coastal Commission voted unanimously against Poseidon Water’s Huntington Beach desalination plant, ending plans that spanned 21 years and cost the private company more than $100 million. The commission said the $1.4 billion facility is simply too damaging to the ocean, too expensive for water customers and too dangerous for the surrounding community.

But while the Poseidon project in particular has come under criticism over the years, the Doheny plant has so far met with little resistance. And it easily received its first critical approval this spring, when the San Diego Regional Water Control Board awarded its seal of approval, without much concern from the board or the public.

That bodes well for the Coastal Commission’s vote on Thursday. Though the agency is notoriously tough on approving projects along the California coast, commission officials recommend approval with 16 additional conditions.

Two of these conditions relate to the Project’s affiliation with the Doheny State Beach Campground. While the wells for the project are being drilled, the 122-site campground would have to close for 18 to 24 months, possibly as early as the end of next year. The Water District is already working with state parks to offer more parking at nearby campgrounds during this time and to upgrade other local campgrounds while the desalination plant is being constructed. The commission is also asking the water district to develop a clear plan to make these changes and communicate them to the public.

A handful of individuals and local groups, including non-profit organization Clean Water Now, wrote to the Coastal Commission opposing the Doheny facility because of these beach closures, as well as environmental, energy use and cost concerns.

“Building a desalination plant at Dana Point would not be the most efficient or economical solution to water supply problems,” writes Samantha Barrie, urging the commission to refuse approval.

But the project has also received letters of support from dozens of agencies and individuals, including local MPs Mike Levin and Michelle Steel, and a variety of local water and energy agencies.

According to Rick Shintaku, general manager of the South Coast Water District, which serves water to approximately 35,000 residents in Dana Point, South Laguna Beach and parts of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, several factors are in favor of the Doheny desalination project.

The first is need. While central and northern Orange County — including Huntington Beach, where the Poseidon Project was located — rest on a massive underground aquifer that can supply about 80% of the local water supply, southern Orange County has no such resource. That leaves these communities 90% dependent on water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River, which is expensive and increasingly constrained as California faces a record drought.

Then there’s how the Doheny project will work. While other local projects planned to directly suck in seawater, which can also suck in marine life, Shintaku said the Doheny project will be the first commercial-scale facility in the world to use “inclined wells,” drilled at an angle below the sea floor . When water is pulled through sand, there is little to no risk to marine life, as shown by successful demonstration plants built at Doheny and in Monterey Bay. Because of this, the Doheny project has indeed received support (or at least no opposition) from many of the same environmental groups that blocked the Poseidon facility.

Another advantage is who supports this project. While the Huntington Beach facility was proposed by a private company, the Doheny project is overseen by a public water district. That means more transparency with a publicly elected board of directors and disclosure rules required by public bodies. The agency may also issue bonds, receive tax credits, and receive cost-recovery grants, with Shintaku citing more than $32 million in such funding to date and perhaps another $8 million in the pipeline.

Finally, there’s the price tag. While Poseidon’s facility was expected to cost $1.4 billion, the Doheny project is now valued at $140 million, with the potential to expand the facility incrementally as future demand warrants.

The current price covers a plant that could process up to 5 million gallons of seawater per day. The South Coast Water District only needs about 2 million gallons a day to halve its reliance on imported water, Shintaku said. But building such a small facility alone would add about $7 a month to customers’ water bills — a hit that 76% of customers surveyed two years ago said they would still be okay with. But if they build a 5 million gallon-per-day facility and bring in financial partners, the bills would only increase by about $2 per month, making public support even higher. So Shintaku said he has solicited letters of support from nearby water districts interested in working together if permits are approved.

If the project receives Coastal Commission approval Thursday, it would only need one more approval from the State Lands Commission. That agency is scheduled to vote on the Doheny project on December 9th.

From there, Shintaku said they must lock down partnerships, each requiring approval from their own boards. They would then have to submit the final project plan to their district board for approval before construction could begin, with a target completion date of 2027.

The Coastal Commission is scheduled to vote on the Doheny facility during its meeting beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Best Western Island Palms Hotel & Marina in San Diego.

The public can participate and comment in person or via a live stream at To listen and participate by phone, call 415-904-5202 prior to the meeting. Learn more at Key Vote for Doheny Desalination Plant Next Thursday – Orange County Register

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