Swan Song for OC Desal?

First posted Dec. 23, 2011

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

An Irvine water official recently let members of the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) board know that their public relations efforts on behalf of ocean desalination aren’t necessarily welcomed in his agency’s jurisdiction, which stretches across the county’s mid-section as its largest water district.

Peer Swan. SCV file photo

MWDOC is the retailer for 28 water agencies throughout the county.

Open dissent by local water officials toward ocean desalination projects is rarely if ever heard at MWDOC meetings, where the belief that such projects, however costly, are a vital part of a larger water portfolio is all but officially treated as sacrosanct.

The official, Peer Swan, one of five directors for the Irvine Ranch Water District, spoke out at a monthly meeting of MWDOC’s Public Affairs and Legislation Committee held on Monday, Dec. 19. He told the board that the agencies that don’t agree with the premise of the PR campaign should be able to opt out.

“I would expect that you would respect your customer’s request not to go in and do a PR campaign on something they don’t support,” Swan said.

MWDOC’s directors were discussing plans to increase their efforts to educate county residents about the supposed needs for ocean desalination in Orange County.

MWDOC wants to convince county residents that desalinated ocean water will guarantee them an endless and reliable supply of drinking water during future water shortages to be caused – inevitably – by droughts or by earthquakes that will break water supply lines; or worse, cause the collapse of the California Delta, which supplies about half of Orange County’s water.

MWDOC is pushing two major ocean desalination projects in Orange County. One of them would be in Huntington Beach where Poseidon Resources, Inc. won approval by the city to build (with the help of huge public subsidies) one of the largest and costliest desalination plants in the western hemisphere (the other, similar plant, would be built by Poseidon in Carlsbad in San Diego County)—after offering tax increments and other financial benefits.

Poseidon is stumbling its way through the final stages of the permit process but still lacks private financing. MWDOC is seeking $350 million in public assistance to make the project cost effective for the company and to attract the private investors that it (Poseidon) needs to move forward.

The other, smaller project, which is backed by five south county water agencies, would be publicly owned and located adjacent to San Juan Creek on property that is owned by South Coast Water District.

Unlike the Poseidon plant, which would suck in over 100 million gallons of sea water a day through the intake pipes used by a huge power plant, its ocean intake system would be buried under the beach at Dana Point, where a pilot plant already is operating.

Far from shovel ready, the Dana Point desalination project seems headed for a decision by the local agencies sometime in 2012. From that point it would move into the final design stage and permitting by the relevant government bodies. Construction would start in the 2017 or 2018, according to project manager Karl Seckel.

MWDOC’s staff provided details of the agency’s strategy for gaining public support for the Dana Point project at the meeting.

“We have been working with the project participants to begin getting either letters of support or formal endorsements from community groups, business organizations, and environmental groups within their area, but also county wide,” explained David Cordero, MWDOC’s Director of Governmental Affairs.

Responding to Swan, General Manager Kevin Hunt elaborated on the broader scope of MWDOC’s outreach efforts, including the Poseidon project, which 21 county water agencies, including IRWD, have indicated an interest in, however tenuous. Very few of those agencies disagree with continuing to discuss ocean desalination “as a viable option county wide,” he said.

MWDOC Director Wayne Clark, whose district makes up about half of the IRWD service area, took umbrage with Swan’s suggestion that MWDOC was out of touch. “I represent Irvine as well as other areas and I think that I’m quite capable of communicating with my own constituents,” he said.

But Swan persisted. “We’re in negotiations with Poseidon,” he said. “Until we get a negotiated contract, I think that using the MO that they used in San Diego, creating a tsunami before the agencies approve things, is an inappropriate thing in Orange County.”

Swan told the Voice after the meeting that he doesn’t want the county’s water agencies to be boxed into supporting programs that don’t make much sense. And he thinks there should be a defined program with agreed upon principles and financing before MWDOC or its agencies seek public support for it.

Swan is personally opposed to both ocean desalination plants but not for any of the environmental reasons often listed by other opponents, who are concerned that, especially in the case of Poseidon, marine life will be killed by the associated intake and outflow systems. He is opposed because he believes that neither project will fulfill its intended purpose—to provide a needed or cost-effective water supply.

An ocean desalination plant by its nature has to run 24/7, an expensive operation, Swan says; but the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET), MWDOC’s umbrella agency, “already provides a reliable supply for water for South County 98 percent of the time at a fraction of the cost of the [Dana Point] desal plant.”

Poll results from Lewis Consulting

And South County residents would be subject to any water shortages (including rationing) that the MET would apply uniformly as a matter of policy, he adds.

“So the plan itself doesn’t supply water in the event of shortages,” Swan said.  “A couple of hundred million dollars for a very small amount of water is a very expensive project for shortages. And there are much cheaper alternatives to provide reliability to South County which have not been as actively pursued.”

There is no need for the Poseidon project either, according to Swan, because it would serve an area that already gets 70 – 80 percent of its water from an existing underground water supply that could provide 100 percent of the water needed in an emergency.

“What these projects will do is provide an expensive new source of water for MET that the local agencies will pay for,” Swan says. “It will add reliability to the MET system because if you produce water in Huntington Beach or Dana Point, MET will no longer need to supply them because there is cheaper water elsewhere. Thank you very much!”

In this election season, as Orange County voters are constantly warned about government overspending, including bullet train boondoggles, ocean desalination critics like Swan may have found a crack in the veneer of unanimity that MWDOC uses as a cloak to protect and promote its desal dreams.

A new poll, conducted for MWDOC by Lewis Consulting, with a sample of 500 registered Orange County voters, shows a statistically significant decline in support for ocean desalination—from 73 percent in 2008 to 63 percent last October.

In each case the respondents were asked, “When thinking about increasing Orange County’s water supply, do you think ocean desalination is a good idea or a bad idea?”

Sixty-three percent is still a landslide of public support for ocean desalination, but that support might not all be transferable to MWDOC’s two ocean desalination projects, which the 500 voters weren’t asked about.

In fact, there may be a lot of leverage for critics of the Poseidon and Dana Point desalination proposals provided by the questions that, so far, pollsters haven’t asked the public.

MWDOC Director Larry Dick, a stalwart supporter of both projects and ocean desalination in general, may have unintentionally revealed that opening at a Nov. 21 board meeting after the poll’s presenter, John Lewis, explained that seniors, at 75 percent, were more likely than any other group to believe that ocean desalination was a good idea.

Dick asked Lewis if, “The seniors who are so in favor of desalination—are they aware of how much it is going to cost versus other things [water supply sources]?”

“No,” Lewis answered, adding that obtaining an in-depth look at voter sentiments would require asking questions that add the necessary information.

Like, “Would you feel the same way if you knew it was going to cost 40 percent more?”

“Exactly,” Lewis said.

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