Ryan McDonald

Savior or Albatross? Proposed desalination plant could decrease South Bay’s dependence on imported water, but has raised environmental concerns

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The location of West Basin Municipal Water District’s proposed ocean water desalination plant. In the distance is the existing El Segundo NRG power plant. Photo by Brad Jacobson

by Ryan McDonald

In April 2015, the City of Manhattan Beach made a sudden announcement that shook the twin pastoral pillars of suburbia, the automobile and lawn. Effective immediately, residents could not wash their cars at home, and instead had to take them to a commercial car wash. Watering lawns was permitted only on one designated day a week, and had to be done by hand or with sprinklers, not a hose.

The restrictions had kicked in automatically because of a law the city passed in 2009, but the restrictions flowed from a much larger stream. Gov. Jerry Brown had just issued the first mandatory urban water-use restrictions in California history. Brown’s April 1, 2015 order instructed cities to reduce water usage across the state by 25 percent. Among other provisions, the order required cities to impose fines for those who engaged in ongoing violations, like washing a car at home.

The specter of fines, and the fact that Manhattan had already made significant progress in curtailing water use, irked some residents. But residents continued to conserve, and the city met ongoing reduction targets.

In September of that year, the City Council tweaked the requirement to allow watering two days per week at seven-and-a-half minutes per session. A few weeks later, the council again took water supply-related action. This time, however, the vote was quite different.

The council asked staff to draft a letter opposing a proposed ocean water desalination plant near the city’s northern border. The proposal, council members said, had catastrophic implications.

“This will ruin the South Bay,” said then-Mayor Mark Burton. “We need to oppose this as soon as possible.”

Earlier this month, almost two years to the day after issuing the mandatory cutback order and following the wettest California winter since record keeping began, Brown declared the drought all but over. (A state of emergency remains in place for four Central Valley counties, which significantly drew down their local ground water stores during the drought.) But, in keeping with the adult-in-the-room tone of Brown’s second stint as governor, the optimistic announcement was tempered with a stern reminder: reporting requirements and a prohibition on “wasteful practices,” like watering after a rainstorm, aren’t going away.

And neither is the debate over desalination. The West Basin Municipal Water District, the water supplier for the broader South Bay area, has proposed building an ocean water desalination plant near the NRG power generation campus off Vista del Mar. Two possible plants — one producing 60-million gallons-per-day, the other 20 million — are under consideration. An environmental impact report has been in the works since August 2015, and is set to be released sometime this year.

Spurred by concerns from local environmentalists, the Beach Cities have formed an opposition block to the project. Hermosa Beach and Manhattan have both submitted letters against the project, and Bill Brand, Redondo Beach’s recently elected mayor, has been an outspoken critic. But several other South Bay cities included in West Basin’s service area — including those with more moderate incomes and no coastal land — are supporting it.

The disagreement over desal has created bitterness among some environmentalists toward West Basin, a water agency long regarded as both active and visionary for its stewardship of natural resources. The intensity of the debate is a reflection of the fact that the dispute is over much more than just the plant: the ability of government agencies to pursue multiple complex agendas, the future of technology to produce clean water, and the acceptability of continued limits on water use.

It is fitting that desalination should push and pull on such tautly wound strings: water delivery here is both obvious and hidden, essential yet taken for granted. Addressing Southern California, its geography but also its identity, Carey McWilliams wrote, “Basically the region is a paradox: a desert that faces an ocean.”

It’s Chinatown

In a less populated era, South Bay cities got all of their water from wells dug in the ground. But with the beginning of the Baby Boom following World War II, residents began to notice their lawns turning yellow. Without realizing it, they had drawn down the ground water enough that the ocean was beginning to intrude in the water table. The area’s population had grown to the point where it was consuming groundwater faster than it could be replaced, allowing the sea to seep in. They would need to find another source.

West Basin Municipal Water District was created in 1947 and became one of the constituents of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). Created in 1928 and based in Los Angeles, MWD is an imported water wholesaler that provides water to nearly 20 million people in Southern California, making it the largest distributor of treated water in the United States. It draws its water from two primary sources: the Colorado River Aqueduct, and rivers and deltas in Northern California.

West Basin has grown since being annexed into MWD, and now encompasses 17 cities containing about 900,000 people. Throughout this growth, imported water has continued to dominate its portfolio. Although numbers vary within individual cities, the average glass of water in West Basin’s service area is 80 percent imported water and 20 percent ground water.

As the South Bay grew in population, so did the rest of Southern California. And not only did they need water, they needed somewhere for their wastewater to go. And so, like generations of people before them, they turned to the largest body of water they could find. In 1892, the city of Los Angeles bought 200 coastal acres where the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant now sits, and used it as a site to dump raw sewage into the Santa Monica Bay until 1925, when screening began. Treatment became more advanced as the population grew, with the facility’s current iteration finishing construction in the 1990s.

West Basin opened the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo in 1995. At the time the Little facility was erected, Hyperion was sending 350 million gallons of treated wastewater per non-rain day into the Pacific. Today, that number is down to about 250 million gallons. Of that 100 million-gallon decline, between 35 and 40 million is due to a partnership with the Little facility, which takes in treated wastewater and puts it through a variety of further processes.

West Basin and the Little facility have been hailed by environmentalists for both their innovation and positive impact on the ocean water quality of the South Bay. The sticking point is whether further recycling, in any number of forms, could make desalination unnecessary, and in turn whether the desalination project represents a continuation, or an abrogation, of its tradition of environmental protection.

“I want to make them heroes for what they do well,” said Craig Cadwallader, head of the South Bay chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “What they’ve done with recycled water, they went out on a limb to do that. They were pioneers in that era, and it’s still a smarter alternative.”

At current levels, Edward C. Little could handle a total of 70 million gallons. The City of Los Angeles Sanitation Department, which operates Hyperion, is committed to reducing the flow of water from Hyperion into the Santa Monica Bay. According to Los Angeles’ Sustainable City Plan, the sanitation department is exploring a variety of ways of doing this.

Bruce Reznick, director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Waterkeeper, said that pursuing desalination makes further reductions from Hyperion less likely.

“If more desal plants are built, that would reduce demand for Hyperion water, which would mean more wastewater is going into the Santa Monica Bay,” Reznick said.

Rich Nagel, general manager of West Basin, disagrees. He said that the pursuit of desalination will have no impact on its recycling goals.

“We’re going to try to double that input regardless. Desal is completely independent of our pursuit of recycling,” Nagel said.

From bitter to sweet

A rendering of the proposed plant. West Basin officials say that the plant’s water would be cost-competitive with recycled water, but environmentalists are concerned about energy use. Image courtesy West Basin Municipal Water District

Desalination is an old idea. In the book of Job, the title character is wallowing in misery when he is visited by a mysterious man named Elihu. Seeking to prove God’s infinite wisdom to the beleaguered Job, Elihu points to God’s ability to take water from the sea and make rain, “which the clouds do drop and distill on man abundantly.” (They are his only lines in scripture.) The non-miraculous approach seems to have begun in the Mediterranean. Roman polymath Pliny the Elder wrote of sailors boiling seawater and collecting the condensed evaporation against sheep’s wool.

Then as now, a key part of desalination’s appeal has been the independence it provides, from the whims of a politicized water system and the swings of a changing climate. Cities and water districts across Southern California are increasingly promoting “water independence,” and West Basin regularly highlights this aspect of the proposal in presentations.

“Having desal means Southern California gains water independence from Northern California. You can’t waive that off as insignificant. That can be quite important,” said Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, in an interview. “It certainly helps to move forward to a sustainable water supply. It can provide a buffer. If there is a lower level of water supply elsewhere, then it can fill in the need.”

And while significant strides in desalination technology over the years have made it a more economically viable, and less energy-dependent option, limitations inherent in the process remain, and leave some environmentalists skeptical.

In most modern desalination plants, the “thermal” method — an updated version of the distillation technique described by Pliny — has been set aside in favor of membrane systems, which use a semipermeable filter to remove salt and other unwanted components. Among membrane methods, the most popular, and the method that would be used in West Basin’s proposal, is reverse osmosis, which separates a volume of water into two streams, then uses electrically powered pumps to “reverse” the natural tendency of the streams to equalize their salinity. Instead, one stream becomes purer, while the other gets steadily saltier. The pure stream is for use, while the salty brine is sent back out into the ocean.

West Basin began considering desalination almost immediately after coming into existence, Nagel said. In 1948, the district looked at three possible sources to supplement the area’s groundwater: desalination, reclamation or recycling, and imported water. At the time, desalted water cost 30 times as much by volume as imported water.

Today, desalination is around twice as expensive as imported water. This reduction is the result of considerable technological progress, including techniques that recover energy from heat and motion expended in the process. But a significant portion of the costs of desalination come from the energy required to separate salt from water, and there is a limit to how much more energy efficient the process can become. (The technology that would be employed in West Basin’s desalination plant is substantially similar to that used in water reclamation, but the addition of salt from seawater creates a complication not present in recycled water.)

Henry Vaux, a professor of resource economics at UC Berkeley and the emeritus chair of the Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, said engineering improvements are unlikely to significantly improve the power cost associated with desalination, because increasing the purity of water from a fixed level of salinity requires exponentially more energy.

“There are theoretical limits that have been spelled out as to how much energy it’s going to take to separate salt from water. We have been approaching those theoretical limits pretty rapidly,” Vaux said.

Energy-use figures for desalination vary. In a 2016 report on desalination in California, the Natural Resources Defense Council pegged the figure at just over 5,000 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot. (A five-person household averages about one acre-foot of water per year.) In the book “Thirst for Power, Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, said desalination ranges between about 3,200 and 5,400 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot, noting that it was dependent on local conditions like sea temperatures and salinity level. West Basin estimates that the proposed plant would operate at a rate of 4,200 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot.

But there is little disagreement that desalination is one of, if not, the most energy-intensive methods of water delivery. The concern is that great reliance on desalination would complicate efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“Looking at desal as an option is perfectly legitimate. Maybe in 20 or 100 years from now, costs will go down, and we’ll all be relying on renewable energy. But at this time it doesn’t make sense,” said Jim Kennedy, a water policy advisor and former candidate for the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

Other methods of water delivery, however, are hardly free of energy use. The energy involved in transporting water over hills and mountains in the state water project approaches the lower end of what is required for desalination. And any difference between the energy use required for the desalination plant and that of importation, Nagel said, would be made up for with carbon-neutral energy sources.

Beyond that, proponents argue that desalination’s reliability makes it worth the added energy and cost. West Basin projects that a desalination plant would in the future provide about 11 percent of the area’s water supply. Their internal projections indicate that building and operating the plant would add about $3 dollars per month to the average single-family home’s water bill.

The other ‘R’

The energy challenges associated with desalination have produced many environmental critiques, but they can be ultimately boiled down to slogan size: desalination adds a needless step. It makes more sense to recycle treated wastewater, they say, rather than dumping that wastewater into the Pacific, then drawing it out and desalinating it.

“What we’re really talking about is putting wastewater into the ocean, then taking it back out, with the added obstacle of salt,” Tracy Quinn, a water program policy analyst with the NRDC, said at a forum on desalination last year.

Whether increased recycling is an adequate replacement for what desalination would provide — a drought-proof supply of drinking water — is disputed, and involves looking into the future.

At the core of the disagreement is a concept called direct potable reuse, in which wastewater is treated, purified and reintroduced into the drinking water supply. (For obvious reasons, direct potable reuse, or DPR, has become the preferred nomenclature over the former “toilet-to-tap.”) A recent report from the state Water Resources Control Board (WRCB) has said that direct potable reuse could safely form part of the state’s water portfolio. But research, as well as legislative and regulatory tinkering, is still needed.

“Purified water taken directly to people’s drinking water systems: that’s the last part of the drinking water distribution system. And it’s many years off,” said Jennifer West, the managing director at WateReuse California, a nonprofit organization focused on alternative water supplies.

Direct potable reuse is already occurring in several parts of the world. According to Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute, Singapore’s NewWater facility uses reclaimed wastewater to produce 30 percent of the nation’s drinking water, with plans to triple its capacity in the coming decades. And the U.S. military has invested in similar technology to provide water for troops in isolated combat zones.

In California, public support for direct potable reuse is hampered by the gross-out factor. That can be altered, experts say,  through public education. In a public opinion poll from 2014, WateReuse found support hovering around 50 percent, but that figure shifted with further information about the technology.

“Initially they’re concerned. But once they understand the treatment process, it moves into that 65 percent support range,” West said.

In February of this year, Assemblymember Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) introduced a bill to advance the process. The bill establishes a “continuum” of four categories of potable reuse, with increasing  research and regulation required for each level. The first two of these categories, groundwater augmentation and reservoir augmentation, are already taking place. And the bill sets a deadline of Dec. 2021 for the water board to write regulations for the third, raw water augmentation, which involves introducing recycled water into a point in the water supply where further treatment awaits.

But only the fourth category, introducing recycled water directly into the treated-water supply, would truly replace the water that desalination could provide, Nagel said. And while this is still years away, the agency will work to advance direct potable reuse in the interim

“We don’t have our head in the sand. We’re leaders on this issue. We’ve drafted legislation, we’ve supported potable reuse studies to the tune of millions of dollars,” Nagel said.

Project opponents question whether the significant environmental and regulatory hurdles associated with desalination mean that it would distract from its support of potable reuse. Starting last year, West Basin convened a Recycled Water Working group to produce a report on the future of water recycling in the district. Though not formed to address desalination, the working group contained a mix of project supporters and opponents, and discussions on water recycling invariably led back to the need for a desalination plant.

Opponents pointed out that Texas is working on DPR at its Big Springs facility, and that California technically has the authority to permit the practice on a case-by-case basis.

Kurt Sousa, a principal engineer with the state Water Resource Control Board’s Division of Drinking Water, acknowledged that the permitting authority existed. But he said it probably did not make sense to create short-term regulations for such a hypothetical facility.

“When we’re writing a regulation, we’re not writing it for two or three years to get us through a situation. We’re writing it for people to drink that water for 70 years of their life,” Sousa said.

Notes from the underground

A photo of West Basin’s Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility. The facility, which opened in 1995, has been hailed by local environmentalists for its contributions to conservation and ocean water quality. Photo courtesy West Basin Municipal Water District.

The Edward C. Little Facility produces five different grades of water. Three of these are for industrial use at nearby refining plants. The remaining two are “fit for purpose” water, the “purple pipe” water used in irrigation along the Green Belt and elsewhere, and “barrier water.”

Barrier water is a solution to the problem that prompted the formation of West Basin in the first place: It is injected back into the ground to push back seawater and prevent it from seeping into the groundwater table. Between Los Angeles International Airport and Palos Verdes, there are 153 injecting “straws” going nearly 1,000 feet underground.

But there are other possible applications for the water produced at the Little facility — applications that do not face the same regulatory hurdles as direct potable reuse — including possibly enhancing the drinking water supply .

“The absence of approval for direct potable reuse is not a barrier to expanding the recycled water program,” said Mayor Justin Massey of Hermosa.

And just as DPR requires looking to the future, other kinds of water recycling may mean looking elsewhere.

Cohen, of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, noted that although desalination can help with water independence, countries that rely heavily on desalination often have advanced water recycling programs.  

“If you look at Israel, they reuse 80 to 85 percent of municipal wastewater. California usually does no better than 10 to 15 percent,” he said.

There is also an example closer to home: Orange County.

The Groundwater Replenishment System, a joint project between the Orange County Sanitation District and the Orange County Water District, functions similarly to the arrangement between Hyperion and Edward C. Little. The sanitation district does preliminary treatment, including removing some solids and organic material, and the water district takes further steps, including reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection.

The difference is one of scale. Orange County’s facility is the largest of its kind in the world, taking in 185 million gallons of wastewater every day and producing 100 million gallons of water for indirect potable reuse. About 35 million gallons are used as barrier water. The remainder is diverted to a series of basins in Anaheim. It gradually percolates into the groundwater, with the water district employing sensors to check for quality. After about six months, the result is an affordable and environmentally friendly source of drinking water.

This difference in scale, say officials, is due to having a common aquifer, and an administrative overlap that is not found in Los Angeles County, where the county, the city of Los Angeles, West Basin and others all bring different bureaucracies to interconnected problems.

“In the late ‘90s, we went from being a bunch of small sanitation districts to becoming OC Sanitation. Our boundaries almost exactly match the Orange County Water District’s area. We thought, ‘Hey, let’s work together on a better outcome, find a way to maximize the benefit to our common ratepayers,’” said Rob Thompson, director of engineering for Orange County Sanitation.

Thompson said that state law does not obligate water districts to track and report reclamation rates, but he doubts any other agency in the state matches Orange County. And the district is currently studying further expansion to eventually reach 130 million daily gallons of indirect potable reuse water.

Whether Orange County’s model can be replicated locally is unclear. Los Angeles County has two principal, separate basins of groundwater: the “West” basin and the “Central” basin. Although they are hydrologically connected, they are under different jurisdiction. And not only are there administrative differences, there may be geologic ones too. The rate at which treated water seeps into the alluvial plain in Orange County is, in the water district’s phrasing, “exceptional.” It is not clear that the soil found in West Basin’s service area is adequate to handle similar efforts.

Nonetheless, desalination opponents say, the idea is worthy of exploration.

“With the enormous price of desalination, it’s always talked about as being a ‘reliability premium,’” said Joe Geever, a former water programs manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “But really, the way you get reliability is more responsible groundwater management.”

Looming over the administrative difficulties holding back enhanced groundwater filtration is a proposal from the one agency that does link everyone together: the Metropolitan Water District. In the fall of 2015, MWD released a plan to build a recycled water plant in Carson. Though still tentative, early projections indicate the plant would be capable of producing about 150 million gallons of potable water per day — 50 percent more than Orange County’s existing operation.

Water district engineers around Southern California are still evaluating the proposal. But the plant got a recent boost when Brown included it in a list of infrastructure projects for which the state is seeking federal dollars.

The local scene

Among the South Bay companies supporting desalination is Body Glove International. Body Glove President Russ Lesser said he first became interested in the issue when he noticed the strong opposition from the city councils of Manhattan and Hermosa.

Environmental groups have raised concerns about the plant’s impact on marine ecosystems in the South Bay. Heal the Bay cited a 2013 report from the Pacific Institute that examined reverse osmosis desalination in California. The report notes risks about the impact on marine ecosystems of both the mechanisms used to draw in water, and the brine discharge from the reverse osmosis process. (West Basin, for its part, said that plans for low intake velocity, filters and brine diffusion all effectively mitigate these risks.)

As a committed member of Heal the Bay, and the head of a surfing and diving brand, Lesser felt compelled to learn more. He became convinced of the project’s merits, and said he is at a loss over why local officials have come out so strongly against desalination.

“We live in a desert. We’re going to have ongoing droughts. The only reliable source of water we can count on is the ocean,” Lesser said.

Lesser may find himself the odd man out in Manhattan and Hermosa, but he has plenty of company a bit further inland. Other cities served by West Basin, including Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lomita, have backed the plan.

The division is not as simple as inland and coast or rich and poor. (Rancho Palos Verdes has also backed the plan.) But one possible explanation for the disparity in support between the affluent beach cities and elsewhere is that people in historically disadvantaged communities tend to experience more issues with drinking water quality, and in polling are consistently more skeptical of recycled water.

Last year, at the height of the water crisis in Flint, Mich., Nagel and Gloria Gray, the secretary of the West Basin board of directors, gave a presentation to the Inglewood City Council. During public comment, resident Carolyn Fowler urged the council to support the desalination proposal.  Fowler, who is running for secretary of the California Democratic Party, said that environmental issues were often neglected in minority communities and, quoting Billie Holiday, said that approving desal would help assure water independence.

“A lot of people will know this phrase: ‘God bless the child/that’s got his own,’” she said.

The council unanimously endorsed the project.

Desalination continues to make inroads elsewhere in Southern California. A long-contested facility opened in Carlsbad in 2015. According to figures provided by Bob Yamada, director of Water Resources for the San Diego County Water Authority, costs for the plant are comparable to West Basin’s projections, and the energy usage is lower, at 3,500 kilowatt-hours per acre-foot. The agency’s contract with Poseidon Water, the private company that operates the plant, obligates San Diego to purchase at least 48,000 acre-feet of water from the plant for the next 30 years, regardless of prevailing water conditions.

Poseidon is also in line to operate a desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, which was included in a recently leaked list of President Donald Trump’s infrastructure priorities. Environmental concerns have dogged the proposal through the regulatory process.

Among Southern California cities, Santa Barbara has perhaps the longest history with desalination. During a drought that stretched from 1987 to 1992, the city invested in a desalination plant. The project operated for one year before being shuttered when the drought ended and desalination became cost prohibitive once more. Although now out of the recent drought, Santa Barbara sought permission from the governor’s office earlier this month to reopen the facility, with plans to eventually triple its capacity.

The weight and the need

A listing of proposed new or expanded desalination plants along the California coast. The map does not show a plant in Santa Barbara, which has recently sought permission from the state to reopen its plant. Image courtesy State Water Resources Control Board

The story of Santa Barbara reveals a key truth in the debate over desalination: cost is relative. Although the actual number may not change, how good of an idea it seems depends in large part on how desperate South Bay residents are for water.

Climate change is likely to create periods of both intense rain and prolonged drought, complicating conservation efforts. But it may be even more dire than that, Nagel said, because the 20th century was unusually wet. In other words, the conditions that informed the design of much of the state’s water infrastructure may not be reflective of the real water challenges the state faces.

Recent work in dendrochronology, the study of tree rings to examine natural history, offers mild support for this idea. David Meko, a professor at the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona, is currently working on a historical precipitation reconstruction for California’s Department of Water Resources. Meko said that the 20th century was likely the wettest in the last 500 years, though it averaged only about 7 percent more precipitation than the driest.

But the dearth of water cuts both ways. Desalination opponents argue that the likelihood of future droughts means the state must increasingly focus on conservation. Geever said the recent mandatory cutbacks in urban water usage required by the drought show further conservation need not be onerous.

“For too long we haven’t really prepared for these droughts. They’re as predictable as the sun coming up. But every time they happen, we declare a state of ‘emergency’ and say ‘Who knew?’” he said.

West Basin, for its part, has long focused on conservation. Its legacy can be seen throughout the South Bay, including at the drought tolerant garden rimming the Dewey Weber statue at the Hermosa Beach Community Center. The agency hosted frequent workshops throughout the drought offering advice on how to reduce water consumption. This conservation emphasis will continue as desalination winds its way through the regulatory process, Nagel said; as with water recycling, desalination will not impact the agency’s commitment to conservation.

Reznick, of LA Waterkeeper, is not convinced that an “all of the above” approach will work. He previously spent 11 years heading up San Diego Coastkeeper, a good portion of which was devoted to combatting the Poseidon plant in Carlsbad. His time there convinced him that water districts throughout the state tend to embrace desalination because it allows their customers to avoid having to confront hard questions about ingrained, but perhaps unsustainable, lifestyle choices.

“People think ‘I want desal so I can water my lawn,’ without asking the obvious question, ‘Should you have a lawn in Southern California?’” Reznick said.

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