Thursday, June 19, 2014

(Orange County) Grand jury: Time to move on desalination plants

Orange County Register
By Meghann M. Cuniff, staff writer
June 6, 2014; updated June 12, 2014

Orange County’s drought-caused water woes call for a coordinated and urgent approach from public officials, including swift approval of long-delayed seawater desalination plants along the Pacific Coast.
That was among the findings in a county grand jury report released this week that described “world class” desalination plants – including one proposed for years in Huntington Beach – as critical to a more self-sufficient local water supply.
Constructing such facilities, the grand jury said, would insulate the county’s residents from potentially dire future water shortages, including those caused by persistent drought and natural disasters like large earthquakes that likely would restrict the ability to import water into the region.
The report called for the county’s two water districts to combine and advocate for a streamlined permitting process to end years of delays.
“It’s time to complete the permitting and contract negotiations, and start construction of the Huntington Beach desalination plant,” the report said.
Grand jurors also criticized environmental groups for unnecessary delays in the process, claiming, “The environmentalists have had their say and have been reasonably accommodated.”
A large earthquake could prevent Bay Delta water from reaching Southern California and hinder distribution from local water districts. Developing another local source of water to replace imported water is crucial to ensure water reliability, the report noted.
The grand jurors’ recommendations come as ocean desalination projects are being proposed throughout California's 1,000-mile coastline, including in Huntington Beach and Dana Point. It also comes more than a year after the Orange County Water District and Municipal Water District of Orange County formed an ad hoc committee to study the feasibility of combining operations.
Darcy Burke, spokeswoman for the Municipal Water District of Orange County, said the report “doesn’t really change anything for us.”
“It’s encouraging us to do our job, which we’re already doing,” Burke told the Register on Friday. “It doesn’t come with a checkbook. It doesn’t come with public support for those types of projects.”
Still, Burke praised the thoroughness of the grand jury review and said the board of directors will issue a response as required by state law.
Shawn Dewane, president of the board of directors for the Orange County Water District, said his board has not committed to desalination but voted 8-1 Wednesday to study the cost of buying water from the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
“We’re still quite a ways from being able to make that kind of commitment,” he said, adding that he feels the technology offers “tremendous promise.”
With the plants estimated to cost between $100 million and $2 billion, money remains a key obstacle. But the grand jury likened the monthly ratepayer cost of paying for a desalination plant to a pricey cup of coffee.
The $5 to $7 increase that the San Diego County Water Authority is expecting its ratepayers to pay for the new plant in Carlsbad “is about the same as the cost of a Starbucks Venti, a small price to pay for a more secure water source,” according to the report.

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