By Breeana Greenberg
South Coast Water District is one step closer to constructing and operating a seawater desalination plant at Doheny State Beach following the California Coastal Commission’s unanimous vote to approve the roughly $140 million project on Thursday, Oct. 13.
The Commission’s approval of a coastal development permit allows the water district to move forward with its longstanding plans of building the plant that is intended to provide up to 5 million gallons of water per day.
California Coastal Commission Chair Donne Brownsey said that South Coast Water District went above and beyond to collaborate with the agency and comply with the Coastal Act to ensure the best project possible.
“When I read the report on this project, the thing that struck me was that all of the boxes that I think are important to the commission in a project like this, had not only been checked, they had been consciously, intentionally pursued to demonstrate a project that is well planned, has robust public participation and that was working with the Coastal Commission staff as a collaborator in this project,” Brownsey said.
Brownsey added that she sees the Doheny Desalination project as the model for future desalination projects.
The project has been floated as a more reliable water supply compared to imported water, and will use slant wells that draw water in from beneath the ocean floor—a safer alternative to open ocean intake, which poses a threat to any marine life that becomes trapped or sucked into intake pipes.
Groups and individuals who spoke in favor of the plant include San Clemente Councilmember Steve Knoblock, a handful of water districts, such as Municipal Water District Orange County and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Cal Desal, Miller Marine Science Consulting and Los Angeles and Orange Counties Building and Construction Trades Council.
During public comments, a Laguna Beach County Water District representative noted that the agency would be interested in partnering with South Coast Water District on the project.
Members of the Sierra Club, Southern California Watershed Alliance and Society of Native Nations spoke against the project, voicing concerns with the salty discharge created as a byproduct of the ocean desalination process.
After ocean water is desalinated, salty discharge will be diluted with ocean water to the Pacific through the San Juan Creek Ocean Outfall. The salty discharge will be blended with wastewater from an existing wastewater treatment facility, which, according to CCC staff, results in a “relatively small overall effect on marine life.”
“There are some components of the discharge that help reduce the (marine) impacts,” CCC Senior Environmental Scientist Tom Luster said. “First, the discharge is a couple of miles offshore, it ends in a couple hundred feet of pipe with about 100 diffuser ports so the discharge is diffused and distributed throughout these 100 ports.”
“It’s a relatively small percentage of the wastewater discharge,” Luster continued. “The wastewater treatment plant (discharges) 30 million gallons a day or more. The desal discharge would be about 5 million gallons of that.”
The velocity of the diffusers are strong enough to kill some organisms in the water column, Luster added, however, Coastal Commission staff felt that it was a small zone around the discharge.
“The regional board through a number of studies concluded that it requires about seven and a half acres of marine life or estuarine mitigation to make up for that impact to marine life,” Luster said.
A representative of the Sierra Club noted that the nonprofit looks at ocean desalination as a last resort, arguing that South Coast Water District should invest in water conservation efforts, stormwater runoff and capture infrastructure before constructing a desalination plant.
Similarly, Connor Everts, representative of Southern California Watershed Alliance voiced concern with South Orange County’s current water usage. Everts noted that water districts in South Orange County will not meet new water use standards set in the recently passed Senate Bill 1157.
The bill, passed in late September, decreases the standard for indoor residential water use from 55 gallons per capita daily to 47 from 2025 to 2030 and 42 gallons per capita in 2030.
Members of the Society of Native Nations also noted that they were against the project because of potential damage to the ecosystem through the plant’s salty discharge, urging for a conservational approach to water usage rather than building infrastructure for alternative water sources.
In addressing concerns of energy usage, South Coast Water District General Manager Rick Shintaku noted that the plant will use three megawatts per day to produce 5 million gallons of desalinated water.
“We own the 10 acres that this would be situated on, this plant, plus acreage north of there,” Shintaku said. “So, what we’re looking at as part of this project is incorporating on site solar, so we have a lot of opportunity there.”
From five acres of solar panels, Shintaku estimated that the water district could produce 15% of its energy requirements through solar power, however, the district is looking to take advantage of all opportunities to increase that percentage.
Addressing concerns that the project will impact coastal access because of the closure of Doheny State Beach campgrounds for the duration of construction, the district committed to working with California State Parks to provide additional camping opportunities elsewhere during the closure.
Taking advantage of the closure, California State Parks plans to conduct campground improvements and modifications during the plant’s construction so that the grounds are only closed once for both projects. The campground improvements will include electrical, water and sewer hook-ups to individual campsites, upgrades to restrooms and more.
Shintaku on Thursday also addressed concerns that the desalination plant would raise costs for ratepayers, noting that following a comprehensive financial study, the average cost increase to ratepayers in South Orange County would likely be $2.38.
To assist low-income ratepayers, Shintaku said the water district is “in the process of targeting conservation rebates” and is interested in funding “additional rebate money for certain areas that need it.”
Additionally, as a condition of the approval, South Coast Water District agreed to notify low-income ratepayers of their eligibility for rebates as part through outreach efforts.
Coastal Commissioner Dayna Bochco agreed with Brownsey’s comments, stating that “in checking the boxes here, I think staff’s expressed it very well in their report, which is you establish an need, which is No. 1, and establish that it’s the best technology at the best site after a lot of investigation, a lot of testing.”
One of the next steps for South Coast Water District, officials previously explained to Dana Point Times, is to acquire a State Lands Lease agreement.
Breeana Greenberg is the city reporter for the Dana Point Times. She graduated from Chapman University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Before joining Picket Fence Media, she worked as a freelance reporter with the Laguna Beach Independent. Breeana can be reached by email at email@example.com