‘Responsible Ocean Desalination’ Comes to Dana Point

This story was first published May 20, 2010

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

The pilot desalination plant under construction in Dana Point, just off of Pacific Coast Highway and next to Doheny State Beach, will test environmental data to determine  the design of a larger facility in the future that will create 15 million gallons of drinking water per day from ocean water, meeting 25 percent of the supply needs for five partner cities or water districts that together will form the South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination Project.

The desalination plant is being created by the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) with funding assistance from various other government agencies.

Unlike the two desalination plants proposed by Poseidon Resources Inc. to be built in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad, the Dana Point facility is publicly owned and will not use a water intake system that kills countless marine life organisms and is being phased out by new environmental regulations. That system is used by power generating companies to keep their plants cool, and Poseidon hopes to piggy back on it to supply 100 million gallons of seawater to each of its desalination plants daily in order to create 50 million gallons of drinking water.

Scott Maloni and Karl Seckel
Poseidon VP Scott Maloni and MWDOC Assistant Manager Karl Seckel at the OC Water Summit. Photo by Arturo Tolenttino.

Poseidon CEO Scott Maloni and MWDOC manager Karl Seckel at the OC Water Summit. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino for the SCV

Recently created state regulations covering power generating plants would require the “best technology available for minimizing environmental impact,” or a reduction in water intake in order not to exceed the maximum environmental impact allowed. That would for all practical purposes end that “once-through-cooling” process which is currently used by the power generating plants in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad and that Poseidon plans to plug into. The new standard must be met by 2020.

Although the action by the State Water Board applies only to power generating plants, a similar policy for desalination plants is likely to follow. Poseidon, however, is proceeding as if permission for it to continue using the antiquated and harmful water intake process is a forgone conclusion.

But that scenario that is unlikely at best, according to Joe Geever, regional director for the Surf Rider Foundation, which opposes Poseidon’s desalination plans in Southern California. “California law requires them to use the best design, site and technology to minimize the intake of marine life–and those abandoned pipes clearly don’t meet that legal requirement,” he told the Voice.

Speaking at a corporate sponsored water summit held in Orange County last Thursday, Poseidon CEO Scott Maloni claimed that the Huntington Beach plant (and, by extension, the Carlsbad plant) would avoid harming marine life by reusing the power plant’s water and would maintain the plant’s financial viability. Without once-through, he said, his company would have to find another site and build a new intake system, which would “not only would it be more environmentally damaging than the existing system, but it would probably make the project financially infeasible because we couldn’t use water at a competitive rate.”

Although Poseidon Resources claims in its PR literature that the plants will be 100 percent privately financed,the company is depending on hundreds of millions of public dollars to keep costs down for water buyers and to make the plants financially feasible for Wall Street investors.

Instead of the once-through method of sea water intake, the Dana Point facility will use “slant wells” that extend pipes under the sand to take in sea water, thus avoiding the massive damage to marine life caused by once-through-cooling. The project has so far met the approval of environmental groups, including the Surf Rider Foundation and a Huntington Beach group, Residents For Responsible Desalination.

A demonstration slant well was installed for testing in 2006 and will be used in the 18-month pumping and pilot plant test. The environmental data gathered in the process will be used to test the quality of the desalinated water and the ability of the proposed plant to use reverse osmosis to create potable water. If the results are favorable, the final project would utilize nine wells, each hidden underground, thus avoiding visual blight for people who visit the beach. The complete project proposal would be subjected to an Environmental Impact Report and approval by regulatory agencies.

Total cost for the project is currently estimated to be $160 million and it would be completed by 2016 if all goes according to plan.

A $250 per acre foot subsidy provided to MWDOC through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will help keep water rates down. MWDOC estimates that the gross cost of the desalinated water would be $1,350 per acre foot, down to $1,100 after the subsidy. Most cost estimates for desalinated water are much higher than that, between $2,000 -$3,000 per acre foot. But without the need to provide profits for investors as Poseidon Resources must do, MWDOC would presumably have fewer costs to pass on to water rate payers.

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