By Lillian Boyd
South Coast Water District General Manager Rick Shintaku recalls the California drought from 1987 to 1992 as a pivotal moment in his career in water resources.
“Where was I in 1991? I was back in college sharing a house with four other guys. We weren’t flushing our toilets and we weren’t washing our clothes very much,” Shintaku said at a SCWD public hearing for the Doheny Desalination project on June 27.
Shintaku reflected on the major changes in the water world and the conservation mandates that rolled out.
“I’m very thankful for the advancements (in conservation) in washers, toilets and shower heads,” Shintaku said. “But that’s when it all started. And in 1996, Metropolitan Water District issued their first integrated resources plan. That was a big deal… Metropolitan realized they had a finite source of supplies.”
SCWD’s Board of Directors held a public hearing on Thursday, June 27 before certifying the final draft of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Doheny Desalination project. The initial draft version was released on May 23, 2018. It was created to evaluate the possible impacts and mitigation measures of a potential ocean water desalination facility to produce drinking water, in accordance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
Since then, SCWD has collected comments, questions and concerns from impacted agencies, organizations and individuals who submitted feedback within 60 days of the EIR draft release and written back to each of those submissions. The feedback from the public and the responses from SCWD are documented in the final version of the EIR.
SCWD’s service area is approximately 8.3 miles and includes the communities of Dana Point, South Laguna, and areas of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
Currently, SCWD imports 85 to 100% of its drinking water. The agency says this amount of reliability on imported drinking water creates vulnerability during droughts, supply shortages and potential natural disasters. According to SCWD, the proposed project would create a new, reliable, drought-proof source of water, and is one of the first projects to meet all requirements of the California Ocean Plan.
“South Orange County is short of emergency supplies today by 20 to 27.5 million gallons per day. Keep in mind this project produces 5 million gallons per day,” Shintaku said. “The single largest risk exposure to South Orange County is an earthquake that could disrupt the State Water Project flows for more than a year.”
According to the Municipal Water District of Orange County’s 2018 OC Reliability Study, that could mean at least a $1.7 billion economic loss in South Orange County if there was an 80% outage for 60 days. MWDOC states that both the San Juan Watershed Project and the Doheny Desalination project provide cost-effective annual supplies and emergency supplies.
“These two projects should make up the core reliability improvement strategy for South Orange County,” the MWDOC study states.
SCWD formed a community-based public workgroup to review the agency’s draft Water Reliability Study. The workgroup comprises Bob Oakley, Buck Hill, Hoiyin Ip (a Dana Point Times columnist), Jared Mathis, John Thomas and Roger Butow. The study was concluded based off the members’ findings.
“A finding that really resonated with me was that SCWD has a responsibility to its customers to address its system and supply reliability vulnerabilities in an effective and financially feasible manner,” Shintaku said. “Also that the Doheny Project would provide water reliability that is under our control and least affected by external events.”
The water reliability study ranked the Doheny project the highest as far as water supply options.
Shintaku also noted that SCWD currently has about 11 days of emergency supplies, but there is a need for a minimum of at least 49 more days of supplies.
“The Doheny Ocean Desalination Project would provide a continuous supply, well over 60 days,” Shintaku said.
The Triathlon Toward Desalination
The SCWD Board of Directors voted in favor of certifying the EIR in a 4-0 vote, with Director Douglas Erdman abstaining. Douglas Erdman stated he had not finished reading over the report—which exceeds 1,000 pages—and did not feel comfortable voting to certify a document he had not fully read.
“It’s only been out 10 days,” Erdman said before the vote. “At this time I’m going to abstain from approving until I’ve read the document.”
There will be a series of workshops on seawater intake options held for the board to discuss a cost estimate being prepared by a third party. The cost estimate is expected to be completed in the next two to three months, in parallel with the permitting process.
“This is like the triathlon. The EIR is the swim. The next leg of the race is the bike race and that’s the permitting process,” said Shintaku.
SCWD will be seeking permits from the California Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Shintaku says the third leg is design and construction.
“Our board will have to give us the green light before we can pursue design and construction,” Shintaku said. “Theoretically we could have the plant finished by end of 2022”
The Science Behind Desalination
The most cost-effective way for desalination at a large plant is reverse osmosis, says Shintaku. The technology is a membrane you apply high pressure to the water. Freshwater comes out while brine gets screened out. The brine, in this case, will be comingled with the wastewater outfall that extends two miles out into the ocean. Ocean water is being pulled in and run through these reverse osmosis membranes at high pressure.
“We are using slant wells. The wells are 1,000 feet long, totally submerged and never reaches the surface except for where it starts (in a vault),” Shintaku said.
The Price Tag for Desalination
The Doheny Desalination project would cost $107 million to complete. Shintaku says that SCWD has rigorously applied for grants to help offset those costs. So far, SCWD has secured $10 million from the state’s Department of Water Resources and $8.3 million from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Desalination Program—a program that SCWD can continue to reapply for each year up to $20 million.
Additionally, Metropolitan Water District runs a program that pays $475 an acre-foot for 15 years to offset operating costs—this could potentially reduce operating costs by $2.5 million per year.
“With our start-up operating costs of roughly $6 million per year, that’s about 40% of our overall operating costs that could be rebated,” Shintaku said. “Because Metropolitan has a finite resource, they’re going to support alternative options.”
The Technology Already in Place
SCWD has overseen a smaller-scale desalination facility in Dana Point since 2008. The 126 reverse osmosis membranes on-site treat water from San Juan Creek. While the water from San Juan Creek only has salinity of about 2,100 parts per million (seawater has roughly 35,000 ppm), Shintaku says the current facility offers a solid foundation for SCWD to expand its desalination technology.
SCWD owns the property of lots from its current desalination facility off of Stonehill Drive, nearby the I-5 off ramp.
A Diverse Water Portfolio
Shintaku concluded in his presentation at the public hearing that with the Doheny Ocean Desalination facility, reliability on imported water would significantly decrease.
“If an emergency hits and we’re asking customers to conserve at least 85% of their water, they’re going to have to do more than turn off their sprinklers. They’re going to be conserving like my college roommates and I were,” Shintaku said. “With desalination, our reliance on Metropolitan imported water drops to about 29%, and that’s much more doable.”