South Orange County’s reliance on imported water through unsustainable sources that will be impacted by climate change must adapt, according to the Orange County Grand Jury, which endorsed desalination plants as a solution in a recent report.
Released in early June, the report highlighted the continued existence of drought conditions in the western United States, Orange County water suppliers’ need to find solutions to growing needs and potential shortages, and the importance of conservation and public education.
It also commended South Coast Water District (SCWD), which serves most of Dana Point and south Laguna Beach, for its planning of the first California Ocean Plan-compliant desalination plant.
“The District has recently gained approval for the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project for which they initiated feasibility studies in 2008,” the Grand Jury said in the report. “The plant is now anticipated to be operational in 2028. The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project is a new, reliable, local, and drought-proof water supply.”
Mainly designed to produce 5 million gallons of water per day (MGD), but expandable to 15 MGD, the roughly $140 million project would construct five slant wells that would go under Doheny State Beach and draw 10 MGD from up to 130 feet below the seafloor.
Roughly half of the water is defined as usable, while the other half would consist of processed brine that would be discharged along with existing wastewater streams.
In October 2022, the California Coastal Commission provided a coastal development permit, and in December, the California State Lands Commission issued a 20-year lease for the project. Those approvals have cleared the way for the SCWD to push the project forward with the assurance of support from numerous local and state agencies.
District General Manager Rick Shintaku said the significance of the permitting process lay in providing proof of concept to potential partners such as the City of San Clemente, the Laguna Beach County Water District, the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District and the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County.
“Before that, it was pretty much speculation whether this project would, or could, move forward because of the difficulties and challenges other desal projects have had (with) permitting,” said Shintaku.
The project remains in the Planning & Permitting stage, according to SCWD, with multiple related studies currently ongoing, and the district developing a request for qualifications (RFQ) for a Progressive Design Build Operate Maintain (PDBOM) contract.
Shintaku explained that the PDBOM method is slowly growing in popularity, as it allows municipal organizations to avoid risk in ensuring that specialists contracted to engineer, construct and operate the plant act as one team and are liable for failures.
The “Progressive” title speaks to awarding a contract, worth 5% of all project costs to minimize upfront spending, to design 60% of the project and estimate a “guaranteed maximum price” of all the capital and maintenance required.
“We can run that into our rate models, all the municipal governments, whether it’s San Clemente and whoever else is partnering with us, we can see if it’s palatable at that point or not,” Shintaku said, adding, “All we would be responsible for is that cost to get to that 60% design, which is a mere fraction (of the total cost).”
Issuing an RFQ would help identify, within an already unsaturated market of teams, who is qualified to work with the partnering agencies on the project.
SCWD looks to send out the RFQ within the next month and issue a further request for proposals near the end of 2023.
Shintaku also referred to an updated water cost analysis that was presented to the district’s Board of Directors at a June 22 meeting, which found that district customers would pay $4.01 more on average each month in Fiscal Year 2029-2030 with a 5 MGD plant.
A June 2020 survey of customers found that 72% favored the plant after receiving an explanation, and at least 75% were willing to pay an additional $7 each month to build the project, Shintaku added.
During that June 22 meeting, the board voted to increase average water and sewer rates by 7% and 12%, respectively, a move that was affected by a similar increase the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) enacted that is slated to run from FY 2024 through FY 2026.
SCWD imports its water from MWDOC, making it “highly vulnerable to supply disruption” if MWDOC can’t deliver water, according to the Grand Jury report.
The largest wholesale water provider in the county, MWDOC serves 3.2 million Orange County residents with the water it buys from the California State Water Project and the Colorado River. South Orange County heavily relies on the agency.
MWDOC recently completed a study of local water reliability needs that discussed local desalination and water shed projects and the dependability of the Metropolitan Water District, which serves Southern California.
The Grand Jury report found that the study lacked information about “financing and implementation,” a key theme the report later mentioned.
“Based on this study and MWDOC’s countywide area of responsibility, MWDOC could conceivably lead Orange County’s efforts to plan, finance, and implement water source and supply projects,” the report read.
With continuous drought conditions reducing the Colorado River’s water levels and inadequate maintenance of the State Water Project, the report called for finding solutions to water shortages, especially as the current state of supplies will not meet future demands.
Additionally, climate change has lengthened now hotter and drier summers and affected winters in that those seasons have experienced “declining periods of sustained precipitation.”
As California’s population has doubled from 20 million in the 1970s to roughly 39 million, thus dramatically increasing water demands, the report claimed the state hasn’t provided long-term solutions in response.
Along with a restrictive and tedious process to accomplishing projects, California may soon see a rationing of water from the Colorado River, again exemplifying the need for a new water source.
“Orange County needs an entity to champion and lead the efforts to develop a water source that will enhance the reliability of existing water supplies,” according to the report, which added, “A countywide effort to develop a drought-resistant source of water is necessary due to climate change.”
San Clemente Mayor Chris Duncan told San Clemente Times the report displayed information he already knew, regarding the lack of groundwater sources in South Orange County, which is why the city has explored desalination as a source.
With the report emphasizing public awareness of the water crisis, especially in seeking new water sources, Duncan said the city could do more with outreach and education. At the same time, however, he commended the city’s own water utility, ran by Utilities Director Dave Rebensdorf, for its efficiency and status as a “revenue generator” for the city.
“I think we’ve done fine, and I know that our water usage has really, severely curtailed over the last few years (under Rebensdorf), but I think that’s been attributed to people just being self-conscious,” said Duncan. “I think the city could do more to kind of get the word out to people who just aren’t (automatically) making those decisions.”
Regarding desalination, which the report identified as a potential solution, the challenges to implementing such projects include the lengthy planning process, construction costs, impact on marine life, and high energy demands.
The report mentioned that engineers and water experts are researching how to integrate more renewable energy going forward, and that the approval of the Doheny plant is evidence that environmental concerns can be met.
“Orange County should embrace desalination as a major part of an overall local plan, not just a last resort,” the report stated.
Duncan said that while desalination isn’t a “silver bullet,” he expressed his support for the environmentally conscious Doheny plant that should be one of many sources developed in the near future.
“I’ve toured the Carlsbad desalination plant and it is a remarkable operation,” he said. “Again, it’s something that we need to develop, and it’s not going to provide us all the water we need alone, but it can be there to supplement water shortage from our traditional sources.”
According to SCWD, if the district used 2 MGD from its 5 MGD-plant, its reliance on imported water would drop from 90% to 47%.
Shintaku added that SCWD’s efforts in conservation and utilizing brackish groundwater have led to the district having 11 days of water for an emergency, although 60 days is recommended. That lack of additional stored-up water pushed SCWD to pursue desalination.
The district’s ownership of land near the beach and position on the coast is conducive to a successful project, according to Shintaku, who added the same geology doesn’t exist all the way up the coast.
Additionally, the presence of water transmission mains that travel from Irvine through the area and to Camp Pendleton help the district in that it isn’t facing a massive infrastructure cost.
“A lot of these things lend itself to this; this site was just optimum, and this project was optimum for the South Orange County,” Shintaku said. “My opinion is you really need to look at the area and the specific needs there before embarking on ocean water desalination.”
The district is now working on fulfilling the conditions the California Coastal Commission gave when issuing the coastal development permit for the project.
The Grand Jury report has required SCWD, among other municipal organizations, to respond to the report’s findings and recommendations, and has requested the City of San Clemente respond as well.