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.
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.