Tucked behind the northeast corner of King Harbor Marina in Redondo Beach, California, there is a $10 million experiment taking place over how best to turn the salt water of the Pacific Ocean into drinkable tap water.
The demo plant here represents the second of two pilot projects – the other one previously in El Segundo began 10 years ago and has since been concluded. The two pilots have cost at least $18 million. A review of board meeting documents by the nonprofit Desal Response Group reveal more than $23 million in construction and consulting services since 2006 related to the development of these two pilot projects.
Out of more than a dozen water agencies in California thinking about building a full-scale ocean desalination facility, none have spent as much time and money on demonstration projects than the West Basin Municipal Water District in Southern California.
The public agency, governed by a five-member board of directors, controls a $166 million annual budget and distributes water wholesale to 17 cities and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. West Basin would also be the chief sponsor of a local desalination plant.
“This board wants to be responsible,” says Rich Nagel, West Basin district general manager. “Are we going to 100 percent mitigate every environmental impact? I don’t know if that’s possible. But we’re going to do a good job at trying.”
Environmental groups have opposed ocean desalination in general for decades, painting it as a costly alternative that misdirects funds from conservation. They also point to desalination’s heavy carbon footprint and its possible harmful effects to marine life such as small fish and even seals that could become entrapped in the water in-take pipes.
Legal challenges have dragged out the permitting for more than 10 years on similar, proposed plants in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach. The possibility of desalination coming to Redondo has already sparked heated criticism from Redondo Beach City Councilman Bill Brand.
“We ought to be tapping into conservation much more than we are,” Brand said. “We shouldn’t feed our wasteful ways with a new desalination plant.”
A guided tour through the Redondo Beach facility starts with a review of the six-member West Basin board members, whose portraits line the wall. There is an educational exhibit about water conservation, an explanation of the looming water shortage facing Southern California and the undisputed need for ocean desalination. The tour also covers energy recovery technology, a new type of screened water in-take and an experiment with discharging the residual brine of concentrated salts and other elements.
“Our goal would be to walk away from this demonstration period having a foundational approach to how we’d operate a full-scale facility,” says Phil Laurie, principal engineer.
The plant itself, which began operating in February, produces 35 gallons of freshwater per minute, which officials say is an amount necessary to demonstrate full capacity. Most other pilot projects, however, such as one in Dana Point process much less, around 4 gallons per minute.
After touring the exhibit recently, Azita Yazdani, founder of Exergy Solutions, a technology company that builds industrial water recycling facilities, said at most the processing plant should have cost around $3 million.
“When someone told me they possibly spent more than $10 million on all this, I said, ‘You’re kidding me,’” Yazdani says.
District officials dispute the amount. “We’re being very diligent and good stewards of our ratepayers’ money,” Laurie says. “The expenditure of these funds now will give us many folds return in the full-scale development.”
At the same time, they want to double sewer water recycling from 40 million gallons per day to 70 million through a program that has gained national recognition. Residents too would be expected to reduce consumption by about 20 percent. All of it put together would reduce the district’s dependence on imported water from 66 percent today to 33 percent by 2020, Laurie said.
Desalination opponents want to see water use drop even further. The district has already reduced consumer use by about 15 percent over the past year. But today, overall per person water use is still somewhat high. In Redondo and Hermosa, residents currently use about 116 gallons of water per day. In Australia, they brought water use down to around 60 gallons per person before turning to desalination.
“It may be a bit ambitious to think people will just shut off their water,” said Bob Muir, spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which distributes imported water to regional water agencies. As part of an incentive program, Metro is offering water agencies $250 per acre-foot toward water they get from desalination. The incentive represents a huge taxpayer subsidy for burgeoning projects. Muir says the agency has not lost sight of conservation, but that it is about tapped out.
“Since 2000, we’ve really encouraged people to make wise choices when it comes to their landscaping because it can make a difference,” Muir said.
Making the case
It might be difficult to tell from the sprinklers and manicured grass, but Southern California is running out of water.
The state’s latest drought designation was officially lifted last year, yet according to many experts, if development continues at its present pace and people keep using about the same amount of water, Southern California could face skyrocketing water rates within 10 to 20 years.
Southern California, and the South Bay in particular, is largely dependent on imported water. In Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo as much as 80 percent of the water that rinses out shampoo in the morning or washes the dishes and clothes originates hundreds of miles away.
A 400-mile aqueduct carries water each day over mountains and across valleys from the San Joaquin Basin near Sacramento – as does another pipeline from Lake Mead on the Colorado River. Most of it goes to agriculture and the growing needs of urban Southern California. The source of that water, however, is drying up due to global climate change, and, when water levels get too low, court orders limit imports to protect endangered species such as salmon and Delta smelt.
Water experts predict that California could soon face its greatest water challenge yet. The question is whether state and local leaders will impose the strictest conservation measures or resort to the costly, energy intensive method of seawater desalination.
“We’re looking at desalination because of some major changes to the water system, such as the bay delta and the ability of judges to interrupt the water flows,” said Ron Wildermuth, manager of West Basin Municipal Water District’s public information and conservation. “There’s climate change, more evaporation, longer droughts, heavier rain that goes to the ocean. The Colorado River is going to be a drier river. If we weren’t examining local alternatives, we wouldn’t be doing our job.”
Conservationists argue that desalination is too energy intensive. Removing salt from seawater requires about 3,400 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot of freshwater produced, based on a study by University of California at Santa Barbara researchers. By comparison, a typical residential solar panel might produce the same amount of energy in an entire year, and the average family inside might use about a quarter of an acre-foot of water each year.
Almost all of today’s ocean desalination plants use reverse osmosis technology, where saltwater under about 800 pounds-per-square-inches of pressure is driven through woven membranes. The process requires large amounts of energy, and it can be harmful to marine life.
Desalination’s benefits would allow the region to import less water, which comes with its own energy and environmental costs. It takes about 3,100 kilowatt hours of electricity to pump water from the Delta compared to around 3,400 for desalination.
Companies trying to sell desalination to public officials claim to be able to produce water for around $1,000 per acre-foot, an amount equal to the average cost of imported water today. But most accounts put the cost of desalination, based on energy prices in the United States, at more than $3,000 per acre-foot. Water officials generally believe they can produce it for around $1,400.
Locally, West Basin officials say desalination will directly offset the amount of water the district imports. But even this claim seems wishful when considering that overall imports to Southern California will not diminish, because ongoing demand exists from agriculture and other inland communities, according to Muir.
“I don’t think it’s ever been explained as a way to decrease the use of imported water. It’s really to provide more water reliability for the region,” Muir said. “Every drop of water desalinated will free up the like amount of water for other uses.”
Others see desalination as an emergency measure. If, for instance, the levies holding back the San Joaquin Basin were to burst because of an earthquake, which some analysts predict, Southern California could be without a large part of its water supply.
“Conservation is not the same as water supply,” says Redondo councilman Steve Diels, who supports a possible desalination plant in the city. “It does appear that we are going to need additional supplies in the future. And we can’t rely on Northern California.”
The push for desalination ebbs and flows in California with the ongoing cycles of drought and abundance. Santa Barbara built an ocean desalination plant in the 1990s during a drought. Now it sits idle, too costly to operate. Another plant in Catalina is reserved strictly for emergencies. The City of Los Angeles relieved its water woes through strict conservation measures. And discussions in Long Beach to build a plant have largely subsided.
Plans to bring desalination to the South Bay have been percolating among West Basin officials for more than a decade. Unlike privately-owned ventures in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, West Basin officials say they want to maintain public ownership.
Carol Kwan, the West Basin board member representing the South Bay beach cities, is a staunch supporter of desalination. She said the district is exploring building a full-scale plant at this point, but nothing has been approved so far.
“Because it’s so controversial we can’t even publicly say much about it,” Kwan says. “It’s no sure thing at all.”
Critics of desalination feel board members receive a one-sided perspective from the various trade groups and industry representatives at conferences such as the annual California Water Association meeting.
“Sometimes they lobby pretty hard,” Kwan says. “You have a few private firms that would like to see if a public entity would like to privatize. With all due respect you listen to them.”
Conner Everts, who heads the non-profit Desal Response Group, would rather see the district resist desalination at all cost.
“They haven’t paid attention to some of the other stuff because they have redirected money to desalination,” Everts said.
Environmentalists historically have opposed desalination plants largely due to the water intake issues. Wildlife can be sucked in along with the ocean water brought in for treatment. Those concerns have lessened as desalination technology has improved, which is partly the function of pilot projects.
A plant in El Segundo or Redondo would likely share the existing surface water in-take pipes used by the power plants there now. The state of California is in the process of outlawing these same pipes in coming years when it comes to power plants.
As part of the demonstration project in Redondo, engineers are experimenting with a new wedge-wire screen to minimize harm at the ends of those pipes. So far, the technology is working, according to West Basin officials.
By 2020, AES Corporation, an energy company, hopes to decommission the existing power plant and build a newer, more efficient plant with a smaller footprint and without ocean cooling water at the same location, said Eric Pendergraft, president of AES Southland.
“We’re going to have property available open to all types of uses including desalination if it’s supported by the city and the local community,” Pendergraft said.
The energy company is currently leasing space adjacent to its Huntington Beach generator for another proposed desalination plant that would also use the water in-take pipes targeted by the state. He acknowledged the existing pipes currently result in the loss of some marine life, but says it is negligible.
“The operation of those ocean water cooling systems certainly result in the mortality of marine life, but it does not, in our view, change the productivity of the overall marine environment,” Pendergraft said.
“I’m mainly opposed to the re-industrialization of the Redondo Beach waterfront,” says Brand, who led a citizen’s initiative to shut down the power plant and build a park. “A desalination plant is more industrialization of our waterfront and an inappropriate use of what’s there now.”
Water experts say California cannot conserve its way out of an impending water crisis, citing a landmark Scripps Institute study in 2008 saying Lake Mead had a 50 percent chance of going dry by 2021.
Conservationists say it is a manufactured crisis, especially considering more than half of all household water in Southern California is used outdoors. A Pacific Institute report, Waste Not, Want Not, said that California’s water needs could be met in the foreseeable future with the use of “water-saving technologies, revised economic policies, appropriate state and local regulations, and public education.”
“We don’t have a water crisis, we just mismanage the water we have,” Everts says.
Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach City councilwoman, believes water agencies could drive conservation by imposing more drastic tiered pricing structures.
“Every year they sell this idea that we are in a drought,” Cook says. “Let’s start to learn to live with the normal weather patterns of Southern California. If we had a drought we would price water appropriately, which we don’t.”
Due to record rainfall last year Southern California will have more water in storage than it has ever had as a region, says Muir, spokesman for Metro, which controls imported water flows. But that does not change the outlook for desalination, he says.
“We really have an obligation in Southern California to develop any and all of our resources,” Muir says. “Whether it be desalination, continuing to recycle supplies, conserve supplies or manage efficiency. It’s not an either or proposition. We can’t invest in one alternative. We need a series of alternatives to maintain reliability in the coming decades.”
Are we conserving enough?
West Basin officials insist they are doing as much conservation and recycling as they possibly can.
“It’s not like we’re looking at the ocean to solve all our future water problems,” says Phil Laurie, principal engineer. “The mainstay of our expansion will be conservation and recycling.”
The district currently produces five types of potable water from recycled sewer water, a process similar to desalination yet requiring roughly a quarter of the energy.
In order to encourage conservation, California Water Services Company offers subsidies for low-flow nozzles and other water saving devices, but it is up to cities to enforce reductions if they so choose, he said.
“We’re interested in working with all our cities to identify ways that make sense to that community to reduce water use,” Jenkins said. “Desalination would be one more water supply option that can be drawn upon if needed. It’s important to keep all these water supply options in context and how they interact with one another.”
In July 2009, Manhattan Beach restricted outdoor irrigation during the day and within 24 hours of any rainfall. Those measures were lifted when the state drought order was repealed, but it is still having an impact on consumers, said Raul Saenz, utilities director.
Over the past two years, Manhattan residents lowered their water consumption by 16 percent, said Saenz, who credits the success largely to an education campaign by LA Department of Water and Power. Even before the city instituted the water restrictions, people reduced consumption by about 20 percent, he said.
“I was so incredulous of the numbers even though I had witnessed them begin to diminish, I sent people back into the field to have our meters calibrated to be absolutely sure we were seeing what we were seeing,” Saenz said.
In January 2010, Manhattan created tiered pricing, where it costs more when residents use more, which pushed more reductions. After the drought was lifted earlier this year, the numbers rose a bit, yet they are still down 16 percent from 2008 levels, Saenz said.
“While the pocketbook is important, in a community like Manhattan Beach if you address people with advertising and various incentives and you keep them informed, people will respond.”