: Doheny Ocean Desalination-A Better Plan


By Roger Butow

South Coast Water District has refused to consider Clean Water Now’s alternative plan: Use existing and potential recycled water sources, plus pump brackish groundwater from just below the proposed site. Our plan’s upsides include:

  • Far cheaper sticker price
  • Far less operational purification energy demands (much smaller carbon footprint)
  • Far less volume of concentrated contaminants discharged offshore Doheny State Beach (DSB) to comply with California’s Ocean Plan
  • 12 million gallon per day (MGD) production, a regional potable (drinking water) supply facility, double SCWD’s proposal
  • Less environmentally degrading or invasive
  • Zero recreational use dislocation at the state beach needed to install and service experimental slant wells

Ocean desalination can only reclaim 50% of volumes taken in for drinking water purposes. CWN’s proposal uses recycled and brackish water, with about 90% total recovery rate.

The J.B. Latham Waste Treatment Plant, on the opposite side of San Juan Creek, discharges about 8 million gallons per day of secondary level treated effluent about a mile off of DSB via the San Juan Creek Ocean Outfall Pipe (SJCOOP).

It’s managed by the parent SOC Wastewater Authority (SCWD is a JPA member). There’s enough room to build a reclamation annex onsite, purify 8 MGD up to high-quality recycled water standards.

Send that 8 MGD, and other surplus recycled water sources already in, or available from SCWD’s system (3 mgd, totaling 11 mgd), over to the site but as a new Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) plant. Final polishing/cleansing is relatively effortless.

SCWD takes over management of the Coastal Treatment Plant (CTP) in Aliso Canyon, upgrades it to a recycled water facility. Send the CTP’s surplus south to the new DPR facility via existing piping.

3 MGD could be pumped up a few hundred feet from below the site using time proven, using reliable, conventional vertical wells, not the experimental slant wells SCWD has chosen. Pumping brackish is desalination or desalting but in fresh/ocean water mixing zones.

SCWD owns three parcels of 10 acres each, the ocean desalination on the one closest to the beach. Why not pump from their own property, keeping within their ownership footprint? Minimal total inflow of about 14 MGD or 12 MGD of drinking water.

Simple plumbing dynamics can connect the intake and subsequent distribution systems.

The economy of scale significantly reduces construction, operational/maintenance and delivery costs, making it more economically attractive.

An 11 MGD production equals 10% of South Orange County drinking water demands.

Partners Municipal Water District of OC (MWDOC originally launched this project in 2001), Laguna Beach, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Moulton Niguel Water District all walked away from this project 8 years ago because they saw the already soaring costs, their fiduciary frugality proven in time to be wise choices.

A combination of DPR and Indirect Potable Reuse (IPR), with modest brackish pumping, should have be analyzed, explored for their potential: Ocean desalination should have been SCWD’s last, not first path.

Candidate partners will want to “look under the hood and kick the tires,” go through term sheets with a fiscal oversight comb. CWN believes they’ll sustain our contention that were better alternatives that SCWD ignored.

We’re not the only ones to be suspicious, believe SCWD’s projected rates Pollyanna, if not outright voodoo math for luring bait.

Doesn’t that help explain why for all of these years since they left the table, none of the original partners have returned?

Then there’s the largest and most innovative water supplier (potable and recycled) in South Orange County, Santa Margarita Water District. They haven’t invested a penny in 20 years, they must have had their reasons.

Tiny SCWD, already in red ink from the South Laguna Tunnel Project, has been in over their heads since going solo in 2013, not to mention blown through more than $10 million that can’t be recovered.

Roger is a professional land use and environmental analyst. He’s also founder and executive director of Clean Water Now.

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  1. Roger Bütow‘s/CWN‘s plan is so overwhelmingly sensible, it seems impossible that there would be anyone still willing to consider the desalination option. But, where there‘s big money to be made, there tends to be big advertising budgets to promote their cause and to discredit opposing views. I hope that CWN‘s proposals can gain traction despite the dollars being spent on the silly desalination alternative.

  2. There’s one proposal worse than reclamation and that’s incinerating the recoverable water we have using waste solids as fuel. The western drought may grow much worse and brings these alternatives into focus, let’s be smart about reclamation of the water we already have.

  3. Mike:
    Knowing that you are committed to precision, please note a few things:
    A.: When we in the industry refer to desalination without the modifying prefix “ocean,” we mean time-tested vertical well pumping of brackish, high TDS groundwater/aquifer, not direct oceanic drafting.
    B.: Unlike The Poseidon Adventure, a Public/Private/Partnership (P3), this is a small district trying to go it alone, not for profit. Poseidon’s VP DID show up at a SCWD hearing 3 years or so ago, sniffing around, offering a P3 but SCWD rebuffed them.
    C.: SCWD’s previous, now deceased GM in ≈2013 was rumored to have told MWDOC to go pound sand, it was either SCWD in charge or else. 8 years later it languishes, SCWD Board members humiliating themselves by shamelessly begging for their partners to return.
    D.: The main point is how risky this is $$$-wise, betting your customer’s $$$ now and into a 30 year future (when you’ve little of it to begin with) on an unproven technology when we’ve already got 10-12 MGD of secondary treated wastewater being discharged from ocean outfalls (San Juan & Aliso Creek).
    That water is truly wasted. SCWD is like some low income person going out shopping at an upscale, unaffordable chi-chi market when the fridge is full of leftovers.
    Use what you already have first!

  4. Mr. Tang:
    Thanks for the insults, I’ll have to tell my clients that you said that I’m not credible and they can cancel their accounts. Oh, and I’ll return their $$$.
    Your are correct, slant well drilling HAS been used in both the oil and gas industry for exploratory drilling for quite some time. Burrowing at an angle through dirt, shale etc., if unsuccessful or they hit a snag, they just move the equipment, no big deal, what do the ground squirrels care about the inconvenience and loud noises?
    These will be arrayed adjacent to a fully trafficked boardwalk, huge vaults, big machinery to install and if necessary remove or service/maintain. That’s major recreational dislocation that drilling out in the boondocks doesn’t entail. It’s a public beach, not down a 7 mile country road.
    And those stainless steel vault doors will certainly radiate heat like, well, like hell!
    Ocean desalination, maybe some day after we’ve exhausted reuse potential, recycle what we have, but NOT in this type of installation! It still hasn’t been approved for ocean desalination, it’s been languishing at the Cal Coastal Commission (Monterey Cal Am proposal) for quite some time. Do you Mr. Tang know why?
    Basically elsewhere there’s a different purpose for slant drilling, the application of the technology for many reasons, please provide linkage to where else in the world it’s being done for ocean desalination under the same or similar conditions as year round destination Doheny State Beach?
    And if these wells don’t work, unlike multi-billion $$$ energy-exploring international corporations (oil, gas, etc.) with nearly limitless budgets, this will be attempted with the customer’s money of a tiny water district—-who wants that type of experimental adventure?
    As former SCWD Director Dennis Erdman, now a Director representing SOC on the MET Board challenged his own district while there: Can we wait until it’s proven itself over time, not just a pilot/demo but on full bore operation for several years?
    Last, Mr. Tang, I’m betting you’re an oil or energy-related private industry engineer?
    This project ISN’T a corporate for-profit venture, it involves a district already in the red from the So Lag Tunnel Project ($100 million) taking on over $100 million more, further in debt.
    Like a variable loan, much higher expenses after subsidies from MET disappear a few years down the road (LRP Incentives), a HUGE balloon payment after all of the staff and Board have retired.
    Risk/cost benefit investigations by the SOC industry engineers and fiscal analysts who I work with remain cynical, they’re savvy, estimate the initial delivered cost will be closer to $1900/af (not the high $1500s SCWD boasts of), blowing up to $2400/af down the road.
    Everyone vaguely interested, inverstors included, dropped out years ago. See any other water utility cued up and eager, signing a Purchase Order/contract? There’s your poker tell, cause they’re not.


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