SCWD Board to Review Desal Tech Concerns

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By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

The South Coast Water District’s Board of Directors will hold a special meeting on Thursday to hear from a consultant that pioneered the use of slant water well technology about why its a feasible component of the planned Doheny desalination plant.

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

The directors will hear a presentation from representatives of GEOSCIENCE Support Services that includes lessons learned from previous slant well construction and operation, as well as strategies for mitigating the technical risks of installing technology that has a relatively brief track record.

“Our Board remains committed to thoroughly vetting these issues as we continue our commitment to our ratepayers and to responsibly enhancing the District’s sustainability and water portfolio,” General Manager Rick Shintaku said in a prepared statement.

On Oct. 30, the board heard a “peer review” of slant well technology from Rich Svindland, president of California American Water, which is using slant wells in the Monterey Peninsula Water Supply Project, which includes a desalination plant scheduled to start operation as early as the fourth quarter of 2020.

Svindland estimated each slant well’s cost between $4 to 5 million.

The Doheny desalination facility is proposed at a site next to San Juan Creek and north of Pacific Coast Highway. It 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.

Director Dennis Erdman said the complete transition from purchasing imported water from the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County to desalinated water is expected to cost ratepayers $6 million per year. That comes out to a water bill hike of $490 per year.

“We need to really see if that additional $6 million a year that we’re going to be asking our ratepayers to come up with, what is that buying for us?” Erdman said.

A fear among water agencies in Southern California is that a major earthquake could cut off aqueducts bringing in water from the Sacramento Delta, Sierra Nevada snowpack, and Colorado River. The Metropolitan Water District of Orange County has warned local water agencies like SCWD that they need to prepare to go without this imported water for up to 60 days.

Part of the desalination plant’s appeal is that it would provide SCWD with a more resilient water delivery system in the event of a catastrophic earthquake. However, Erdman pointed out a redundant electrical generation system needs to be added to the project to guarantee water desalination during an emergency.

So far, SCWD has spent about $7 million on pursuing desalination.

“I don’t think we’ve included the cost we’ve spent to date,” he said.

Roger Butow, executive director of the advocacy group Clean Water Now, said he wants to see the productivity of multiple slant wells for multiple years before SCWD invests in what he claims is “experimental” technology.

“Let someone else suffer the financial impact and see if the technology is viable,” Butow said. “Let them take the risk.”

Butow also raised concerns about California American Water’s potential conflict of interest in offering a “peer review” of a technology that’s essential for the success of its $329 million water project in Monterey. Instead, SCWD should be advised by experts who don’t stand to make money off slant wells, he said.

“There’s contamination there that involves conflicts of interest, in my mind, and they have not resolved that,” Butow said.

The board is scheduled to discuss these matters at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14, at the District Administrative Office, 31592 West Street in Laguna Beach.

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