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Climate and Environment

A Tale Of Two Ocean Water Desalination Plants And Finding A Solution To Drought

An artistic rendering of a proposed ocean desalination plant in Dana Point, CA, seen from an overhead perspective. The plant with several buildings can be seen in the foreground and in the distance is a beach and the ocean .
An artistic rendering of the ocean desalination plant proposed at Doheny State Beach.
(South Coast Water District
/
LAist)
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New water conservation restrictions … ongoing drought … California clearly has a water problem. But lucky us — we live by the ocean! Why not take the salt out and use some of it for drinking?

“A knee-jerk reaction is: stick a straw in the ocean, bring water in, and we'll never have to worry about the drought again,” said Garry Brown, the founder and director of the environmental group, Orange County Coastkeeper. “And it's so much more complicated and on so many levels.”

This is the story of two ocean desalination plants. One: a huge facility proposed by desalination company Poseidon in Huntington Beach that faced massive public resistance. It was rejected by the California Coastal Commission last month, leaving that project dead in the water.

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And two: a smaller plant being considered at Doheny State Beach that has faced little resistance from environmentalists. It has sailed through the permitting process so far and the Coastal Commission is expected to make a final decision later this year.

Brown’s organization was one of the most ardent opponents of the Poseidon project, but it supports the Doheny project. He said the latter is a model for doing desalination right

“Every desal project has to be analyzed on its own merits,” Brown said.

The Doheny project proposal differs significantly from the Poseidon project, he observed. Here are some key differences:

  • The Doheny plant would pipe water from underneath the ocean’s floor, not directly from the ocean like Poseidon’s proposal. Brown said that’s much safer for marine life that would otherwise get sucked in with ocean water. 
  • The Doheny proposal is much smaller and Brown said it is sized appropriately for the need: it would produce up to five million gallons of drinkable water per day, as opposed to the 50 million gallons that Poseidon would have produced. That matters because Poseidon was planning to serve the northern part of Orange County, which already has one of the largest groundwater basins in the region, allowing that area to import only 23% of its water supply. On the other hand, the south part of the county imports more than 85% of its water and doesn’t have a groundwater basin to store water. 
  • Desalination is the most expensive way to get drinkable water these days, as opposed to importing it from reservoirs in Northern California or recycling wastewater. The Doheny plant is expected to create far less of an increase in water rates than Poseidon’s proposal.  

Brown said he and other environmentalists are also more supportive of the Doheny project because it’ll be run by a public water agency rather than a private company. The state is currently revising its ocean desalination regulations and Brown said he expects it will use the Doheny plant as a model for how to do desalination in a way that’s better for the environment.
But still, he said desalination should only be considered when it’s truly necessary.

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“I'm not naive, there's gonna be some opposition to it, but nothing like Poseidon faced,” Brown said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox, but it's a tool of last resort.”

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