SCWD Examines Drilling Plan for Desal Plant


By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

An engineering firm advising the South Coast Water District on its proposed Doheny desalination project was summoned Thursday, Nov. 14, to explain how officials might mitigate the risks of using a relatively-new drilling method to siphon seawater from beneath the ocean floor.

A rendering of the proposed Doheny desalination facility in San Juan Creek. Image courtesy of South Coast Water District

Brian Villalobos, principal geohyrdrologist for GEOSCIENCE Support Services, told the SCWD Board of Directors that drilling slant wells, rather than vertical or horizontal wells, off Doheny State Beach is ideal because of the dynamic hydrological and environmental conditions. Villalobos said alternatives to the proposed project would have a greater impact on San Juan Creek’s lagoon and stream flow.

“We felt these weren’t acceptable because of all the problems they would create, and they’re not really solving problems,” Villalobos said.

If approved, the Doheny desalination project would initially serve the 35,000 residents in the SCWD service area, including those in South Laguna Beach, as well as 1,000 businesses and two million visitors per year. It would effectively replace imported water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County.

GEOSCIENCE highlighted lessons learned from drilling slant wells for the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, which includes a desalination plant scheduled to start operation as early as the fourth quarter of 2020. It operated test slant wells at Doheny State Beach for 18 months to demonstrate their design’s effectiveness.

Villalobos also pointed out that slant wells are designed and built using “tried and true methods”  that meet the American Water Works Association’s well standards.

Board Vice President Dennis Erdman started his comments on a much more positive note than at the Oct. 30 board meeting.

“What I like is that we have a great location, we own the land, we have great access to existing water transmission pipelines, the brine return to the ocean is via existing infrastructure and it meets the environmental goals that the community and the state have,” Erdman said.

“However, the project is also amazingly complex and the deeper we get into the details the more issues arise, and these issues need to be addressed,” he said.

Erdman repeatedly pointed out that SCWD needs neighboring water agencies to commit to purchasing desalinated water.

Rancho Santa Margarita Water District general manager Daniel Ferons said his agency isn’t opposed to slant well technology but also isn’t sold on its effectiveness.

“We don’t have the checkbook out yet,” Ferons said.

SCWD Director Rick Erkeneff said the water agency is not proposing the Doheny plant to make a ton of money like private desalination developers in Southern California. Poseidon Water built the Carlsbad Desalination Plant that opened in 2015 and is trying to build another in Huntington Beach.

“We’re part of the community,” Erkeneff said. “I’m a ratepayer—I’ll feel these rates increase if this project goes through. I’m going to feel the rates increase whether this goes through or not. I mean you can look at the [Metropolitan Water District price] increases.”

Capistrano Beach resident Richard Gardner said the Carlsbad desalination plant didn’t become a certainty until after the San Diego Water Authority committed to purchasing a certain amount of water from the project. A similar partnership is needed among South Orange County water agencies for the Doheny project to be successful, he said.

“You can design the daylights out of this, we can look at every kind of well, [but] you’re never going to have a plan until it becomes regional,” Gardner said.

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  1. Slant wells constructed in this manner are far from a proven technology and every single one that has been drilled has suffered from significant setbacks. It would be interesting to hear opinions from independent consultants rather than a consultant that has much to gain, has been obfuscating the facts, and has been sweeping glaring problems with this technology under the rug for years.

  2. Bartholemew:
    You are 100% correct!
    Ignoring facts doesn’t make them cease to exist….SCWD has avoided, sees as a threat, slant well naysayers or skeptics. I know, I probably have the highest attendance record at hearings.
    The relatively new GM inherited a very dodgy project this past year.
    A combo of “my way or the highway” slant well commitment + an incompetent Public Information Officer (like a pool swimmer in open ocean, in way over her head) couldn’t grasp the marketing strategy/public education properly, nor the technical complexity nuances you’ve identified—so she, like the 3 Board members who’ve refused to consider alternatives, ran into a wall when no other utility stepped up.
    They’ve been literally begging for sharing costs assistance (partners) for many many years at related meetings, so doesn’t that possibly mean that other SOC agencies know a potential turkey and fiscal black hole when they see one?
    Her party line propaganda has given questionable technology credibility where it hasn’t been sustained by independent peer review hydrology or engineering specialists.
    Part of SMWD’s letter delivered just before the 11/14 hearing is an offer to co-underwrite such a peer review, get to the bottom of the matter before SMWD would partner.
    Certainly the JPA with water rights, the San Juan Basin Authority, has informed SCWD of their skepticism repeatedly. Brighter minds there have sensed the possible “pig-in-a-poke” aspect, including serious challenges to SCWD’s vendors.
    It’s no surprise that the two Erdman’s (Dennis & son Doug), REAL engineers, have been highly distrustful and critical of this experimental extraction methodology. They have performed the fiscal oversight role, Erdman senior’s projection of a mind-boggling $40/month/hook-up rate increase sustained by a grassroots Capistrano watchdog group led by a legitimate CPA. SCWD advisors allege only $10/month…..That’s a pretty wide disparity, isn’t it?
    It HAS NOT been all rosy up in Monterey, where this technology is in a similar position: In fact, the Coastal Commission staff is leery. Go online and enter “Monterey Slant Well Critics,” lots of conflicting info—-it’s not the giant of emergin/advanced technologies as portrayed. Most of slant well successes are around lakes or when used for mining—-None involve ocean drainage.
    As you wrote, it’s an unproven technology, has no long-term track record, local customers and NGOs in Central Cali outright opposed.
    I’m an independent, professional enviro-consultant and analyst myself, specializing in water-related topics. My 22 years of experience/skill sets are at my LINKEDIN account.
    Both as an individual and via my NGO (CLEAN WATER NOW) have been tracking this project since inception over 15 years ago. Originally it was launched by MWDOC (our local municipal supply provider, a subsidiary of MET).
    SCWD took it over, MWDOC dropped out along with regional partners MNWD, Cities of San Juan Capo, Laguna and San Clemente ≈ 6 years ago. Know why they dropped out? It was obviously way too expensive, slant wells “sketchy,” or as the GM of Santa Margarita succinctly stated “risky.”
    SCWD were somehow convinced that slant wells were the ONLY option, started down that cul-de-sac, only to end up trying to go it alone: At one of the innumerable hearings I told them that they were too fiscally limited, likened them to a KIA-budget vehicle purchaser who mistakenly walked the Rolls-Royce lot.
    The previous, now deceased GM after some 5 years of his administration/duration, when confronted directly by CWN 4 years ago refused to even consider vertical wells or a suggested “hybrid model” i.e., a combo of slant and vertical wells that could be more readily modulated, sensitive to fluctuations, excessively drawing down the lower reach and estuarine zone (Doheny Beach) of San Juan Creek.
    The 3 Board members who allege/boast that they’re on the cutting edge of innovation have been myopic: They could in fact be driving SCWD irresponsibly off of a fiscal cliff. That’s not visionary unless you’re Mr. Magoo.
    In their haste to see their names in the media and on a plaque to cement their historical fame, isn’t it their primary fiduciary responsibility to their ratepayers (present and future) that counts most?
    CWN is the ONLY eco-protectionist group in SOC solely committed to reliable supplies, and this project has yet to pass our smell test.


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