Awash in Mixed Emotions

I have a friend who has come to Avalon at least once each summer since he was 7. His parents brought him in the beginning, and the family stayed at the old Atwater Hotel, all five of them in one room. They rode around town in a squadron of bicycles-built-for-two, everyone sucking on saltwater taffy.

He still comes here each summer, with his own family now, as a gesture to the old days. The great thing about Avalon, he says, is its total failure to become a clone of places like Newport Beach or Malibu. Avalon has somehow retained the genteel shabbiness of a tropical backwater. A Cartier store would be unthinkable in Avalon, and in all his years coming here, my friend says, he has yet to spot anyone driving a Mercedes.

There are a number of reasons why Avalon never made it to the big time, but let's skip to the big one. It's water. There was never enough in Avalon. For years, boats hauled it over from the mainland, and then a small reservoir was built in the hills. But the perpetual shortage continued, and the last three years of drought only turned a bad problem into something worse.

Without water, the big money didn't come to the island. This year alone, some 80 building projects have been placed on hold because there is no water to supply them. When a fire breaks out in the city, it is fought with a mixture that is half brine. In every hotel room and every restaurant there are reminders not to waste. Avalon is now, and always has been, a captive of its minuscule water supply.

And that is why the upcoming completion of a desalination plant in Avalon is a very big deal here. Going up at Pebbly Beach on the outskirts of the city, the plant is scheduled to open in December. It will be the first of its kind of California but certainly not the last. Santa Barbara is planning its own project and even Los Angeles is playing with the idea.

The dream of converting sea water to drinking water is a very old one, of course, especially on dry islands. It has all the lure of alchemy. Here on Avalon, the desalination plant promises to break the yoke that has burdened the city for so long. With enough water, anything becomes possible.

Actually, the Pebbly Beach plant will not totally fulfill that dream. Its capacity is small. But already the Catalina Island Co., an arm of the Wrigley family that owns most of Avalon, has announced plans to build a second, larger plant.

Indeed, there is no limit to the promise offered by desalination. The only constraint is money. The Pebbly Beach plant will produce fresh water at a cost that is roughly nine times that of water on the mainland, meaning it will be very expensive.

Is that price too high? The Pebbly Beach plant is proof that it is not. The people paying for the plant are the developers of a new condominium complex known as Hamilton Cove. Faced with the prospect that they would not be allowed to complete their project because of Avalon's chronic water shortage, the developers offered to pay for the plant and donate any excess production to the city. So the deal was struck.

The people of Avalon have not missed its significance. Donna Harrison, a member of the city's planning commission, says the town regards the plant with "a certain underlying fear."

"When we no longer have nature to provide the constraints, will the city be able to withstand the wave of greed?" she asked. Harrison is not sure about the answer.

Already, the Catalina Island Co. says it wants to build three new hotels and more than 500,000 square feet of commercial space within the city over the next 15 years. You could regard this plan as a long-overdue rehab of Avalon's seedier blocks. You could also regard it as the beginning of the end of Avalon as we know it.

The truth is, no one knows which way it will go. Avalon people, as Harrison points out, like their city very much just the way it is. They will fight to keep it. These are people, after all, she says, who are willing to give up their cars to live here and putt-putt around in golf carts instead.

The histories of small towns trying to stop or even slow down the arrival of the big money runs toward dismal failure. But I suspect there are a huge number of people rooting for Avalon. There's something consoling about a place where most hotel rooms still don't have phones. Where no one seems to have heard of California cuisine. And where you can still get some fine saltwater taffy.

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