By John Earl
In a January 26 Facebook post, Mesa Water and Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) dual board member, Shawn Dewane, proudly announced President Donald Trump’s decision to list Poseidon Resources’ proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant as a “Top 50 Nation Priority Project.”
“I am proud to be an advocate for pure, plentiful and affordable water supply for our community,” he declared.
Dewane’s words were telling of the ideological anti-conservation foundation upon which the Poseidon proposal rests.
“It is important to change the mindset from scarcity to surplus, and this project [the Poseidon desalination plant] is part of that vision,” he wrote.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Dewane claimed, “conservation does not come for free and in fact, prices have risen enough because of demand reduction [during the drought] that we could have paid for this entire project.” (emphasis added)
In a later (April 19) Facebook post, Dewane elaborated on that theme, speaking of water-use restrictions imposed by the state during the recent drought, which officially ended April 6.
“The truth is that the demand reduction accounted for a roughly 30% increase in the cost of ground water to the retail producers in the Orange County Water District are[a], which is passed along to the consumers. That same price increase would have paid for all of the water produced by the Poseidon project. Instead of a new water source, we simply got higher rates and no additional supply. Conservation is the most expensive source of water.” (emphasis added)
Are Dewane’s anti-conservation assertions correct? Mostly, they are not. Let’s examine them:
- Dewane’s claim: that “we could have paid for the entire [Poseidon ocean desalination] project” with the amount of money collected from water price increases due to “demand reduction” created by state-imposed conservation measures during the drought.
- Analysis: The estimated cost of the Poseidon project is $1 billion. In the fiscal year, 2014 – 2015, OCWD’s 19 member-agencies pumped 305,259 acre-feet (af) from the groundwater basin, according to staff reports. The following year, they pumped 281,750 af, or 23,509 af less water. OCWD’s 19 member-agencies would have to collectively pay $1,059 per af or $24,896,031 for imported water to make up for the revenue loss from the state-imposed restrictions. If those agencies were to apply that difference as a down payment for the desalination plant, they would still be $975,103,969 short. At that rate, it would take them about 40 years to pay for the plant, assuming that costs wouldn’t rise, which they would.
- Dewane’s claim: that the replenishment assessment (RA) increase that OCWD charged its member-agencies to make up for revenue loss for conservation (the “roughly 30 percent increase”) “would have paid for all the water produced by the Poseidon project.”
- Analysis: From 2015 to 2017, the RA rose from $322 af to $445 af, by 38 percent or $123 af. The OCWD predicts that its 2.4 million service-area residents will use 303,000 af of water for the fiscal year 2017 to 2018. For that amount of water, the $123 price increase comes to a total of about $37.3 million. The cost of a year’s worth of Poseidon desalination water (about 50,000 usable af of 56,000 af) would be (based on Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad plant) about $2,500 af or $125 million.
- Dewane’s claim: “Instead of a new water source [Poseidon’s desalination plant] we simply got higher rates and no additional supply.”
- Analysis: The quickest way to increase water supplies in the Orange County water basin is by reducing pumping, as the OCWD chart (below) indicates. The Poseidon project would give a “new” source of water, but no more water, except a small amount (on paper only) during an extreme drought. That’s because for Poseidon to receive the $400 million subsidy it needs from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to build the desalination plant (without it, Poseidon says, the plant can’t be built), the water Poseidon produces must replace an equal amount of imported water. That replaced imported water would be sold to water agencies outside of the OCWD service area, at a lower rate than Poseidon water, courtesy of OCWD ratepayers.
- Dewane’s claim: that conservation is the most expensive source of water. See part 2 and part 3 of this series.