Households within the South Coast Water District could expect their monthly water bills to increase between $2.38 and $7.20 if the agency builds the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project, according to a cost analysis released this week.
South Coast Water’s Board of Directors reviewed their consultants’ findings on the project’s cost during a special meeting on Thursday night.
The water district serving South Laguna, Dana Point, Capistrano Beach, and portions of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano continues to wade into the details of constructing a plant capable of turning saltwater siphoned from under the ocean floor into at least two million gallons of fresh drinking water per day. An alternative design would create up to five million gallons of potable water per day but would require agreements with neighboring agencies to be financially feasible.
Some local advocates are concerned whether the estimated operating cost shouldered by individual households could increase if district officials fail to secure deals selling millions of gallons per day to other communities in South Orange County.
“The District has thoughtfully and diligently evaluated the Doheny Desalination Project cost of water and rate impacts,” District General Manager Rick Shintaku said in a statement. “The Doheny Desalination Project could serve as an affordable insurance policy for our community and our region.”
South Coast imports about 90% of its potable water from the Metropolitan Water District via the Colorado River and State Water Project. District officials have pitched desalination as a solution amid persistent droughts spurred by climate change, increasing cost of imported water, and a major earthquake knocking out connections to the state’s water transportation system. The water agency’s emergency storage can provide roughly 11 days of drinking water; far below the 60-day industry standard.
At the earliest, the desalination plant would see its first full-year of operation in Fiscal Year 2026-27, according to a staff report. The district consultants estimate construction could cost more than $126 million for the full-scale project or about $71 million for a scaled-down version.
Although South Coast Water, has floated selling desalinated water to neighboring water agencies, including the Santa Margarita and Laguna Beach County water districts, none have committed to such a deal. These agencies have previously shared that they’re open to buying locally-sourced water if the price is right.
A Santa Margarita water spokesperson said the agency looks forward to reviewing the information after the board meeting on Thursday.
Laguna Beach County water general manager Keith Van Der Maaten said Wednesday that he hasn’t reviewed the new cost estimates and particularly wants to know more about the costs of providing power to energy-intensive desalination projects at both Doheny and Poseidon Water’s site in Huntington Beach.
‘We’re continuing to watch what goes on and see how those develop,” Van Der Maaten said. “Nothing has really changed, as far as I know, about how we look at those projects.”
In his previous position as general manager of Marina Coast Water District in Monterey County, Van Der Maaten was at the helm during the agency’s legal dispute with California American Water over the drilling of intakes wells for its planned desalination plant.
South Coast district staffers recommended its directors approve a plan to pursue and secure partnerships with local agencies and other water purveyors by May 2022.
Regardless of whether the district actually builds the desalination plant along San Juan Creek, residents can still expect their water bills to increase in coming years, South Coast officials said. Clean Energy Capital, a water cost consultant for South Coast Water District, projected various models for how the price of imported water from Metropolitan Water District could annually increase by as much as 5% starting in 2025 to recover the costs of major state infrastructure projects, including an overhaul of how water is moved out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Roger Butow, founder of environmental nonprofit Clean Water Now, said he’s encouraged water officials not to pursue the current design that involves drilling slantwise under the ocean floor for the last 10 years. Among other issues with the project, this drilling technique hasn’t proved itself on a large scale, he said.
“The [drilling] technology has been considered experimental and the costs were rising and going through the roof,” Butow said. “I don’t think they can deliver for what [price] they say.”
Another of the desalination project’s main selling points is providing a local redundant source of water following a major earthquake. But Butow questions how South Coast plans to get enough electricity to the project if transmission lines fall down.
District officials say they’re able to procure natural gas from Southern California Gas from the north and electricity from San Diego Gas & Electric from the south, both of which could be used to power the desalination facility. The project may also include on-site generators capable of powering half of the plant during a utility outage.
On-site solar panels couldn’t power the plant at full throttle on their own, Butow said.
The desalination project has received a boost from the federal government. Last December, the district announced an $8.3 million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was green lighted by Congress in 2019. The district was also in line for an additional $11.7 million federal grant.
Capistrano Beach resident Toni Nelson wrote in a letter to the South Coast’s directors that the panel appears to have moved beyond the point where the public doesn’t have much choice on the project.
“We all know the realities of drought and South County’s dependence on purchased water,” Nelson wrote. “This is a regional problem. Shouldn’t we be seeking a regional solution? If this project makes sense, why isn’t every agency facing those same realities jumping on board?”