Catalina Discovers the Ocean : Desalination to Supply a Reliable Water Source


For as long as anybody in the village of Avalon can remember, coping with a meager water supply has been an inescapable downside of life on Santa Catalina Island. Mayor Bud Smith figures the toughest years were the 1920s, when fresh water was shipped in 22 miles from the mainland by barge, and then dispensed to the populace from a horse-drawn wagon that rolled along Avalon’s main street.

“We’d all take our buckets down and fill up,” recalled Smith, a retired pilot who was born on the island. “We even had saltwater in our bathtubs when I was a kid.”

Life on Catalina isn’t quite so primitive today, but five straight years of disappointing rainfall have nearly drained the island’s only reservoir, leaving Avalon in the clutches of yet another nasty drought. Plastic dinnerware is de rigueur once again in some restaurants, and many of the city’s 3,000 residents are replacing water-gulping gardens with hardier native plants.

Help, however, is on the way. And ironically, it will come from a source that has been at Catalina’s doorstep since long before a Portuguese explorer discovered the island in 1542--the sea.

With the flip of a switch today, Avalon is scheduled to become the first city in California supplied with drinking water that originated in the ocean. A $3-million desalination plant, nestled in a cove called Pebbly Beach, will produce 132,000 gallons of fresh water a day, immediately filling one-third of Catalina’s needs.


Local officials, who have endured five years of managing a dwindling water supply, say the landmark project will be expanded by summer’s end and pobably will be followed by a second plant. Ultimately, they predict, desalination could make the arid island virtually drought-proof, a thought that once seemed unfathomable.

“What desalination does is pretty much take the instability out of our water supply,” said Keith LeFever of Southern California Edison, which supplies Catalina with power and water and will operate the new plant. “When you consider that the ocean is a pretty big reservoir, I think it’s fair to say the island will fare much better from here on out.”

For a tourist-dependent resort whose water supply was previously a hapless prisoner of nature’s whims, the debut of desalination is big news. There are a few voices expressing caution, noting that the historic scarcity of water here has been a convenient brake on something many islanders greatly fear--growth.

But most locals seem decidedly unwary. Rather, they are drought-weary--ready for relief from the inconveniences caused by the island’s perennial water shortages, and happy that the great Pacific Ocean is coming to their rescue.

“I think most of us are very anxious for the desalination plant to get up and running, because it will provide us with a sure water source,” said Rose Ellen Gardner, an Avalon native and vice president of the Santa Catalina Conservancy, which owns 86% of the island and manages it for conservation purposes. “This is my third drought, and let me tell you, I’m looking forward to having this water problem solved.”

Mainlanders, too, have eagerly awaited the plant’s unveiling. From San Diego to Marin County, communities looking for ways to insulate themselves against the current dry cycle and future droughts are closely watching Catalina’s foray into desalination.

“We’ve had an extraordinary amount of interest in this thing, because we’re the first in California to pipe the desalinated product right into the (city water) main,” said LeFever, Edison’s Avalon-based district manager. “I’ve got a list of 100 cities, organizations and water districts that want to tour this plant. Everybody wants to see how we make out.”

Although such widespread interest in desalination is new, the technology is not. Most modern techniques were pioneered in the 1950s at U.S. national laboratories, and an estimated 3.5 billion gallons of desalinated water a day is now produced worldwide.

Most of the large plants are in the Middle East, but more than 1,000 small facilities operate in the United States. American plants are primarily used to produce purified water for industry, but they can also be found aboard U.S. Navy destroyers and submarines and on offshore oil platforms.

The only thing hindering the spread of desalination, experts say, has been the cost. Historically, both the capital needed to build plants and the operating expenses have made desalinated water considerably more pricey than other sources.

The drought, however, is changing the numbers in California, and several of the state’s most afflicted regions have begun to give desalination a serious look.

On Catalina, there is little question that desalination makes economic sense. Here, it has always been a question of having expensive water or having no water at all.

Islanders, whose water system relies on a remote reservoir and pipes threaded for miles across rugged peaks and canyons, already pay about $8 per thousand gallons--as much as three to four times the typical rate in Southern California. The new desalinated water will “fit just fine” into that rate structure, LeFever said.

One reason the rates will remain stable relates to the plant’s genesis. Although desalination on Catalina has been debated off and on through the years, the Avalon facility actually was built by a developer and given to Edison. The utility thus avoided expenses it would have otherwise passed on to its customers.

The developer, Hamilton Cove Associates, was permitted to build 330 luxury condominiums only after agreeing to come up with water for half of the units. The company considered drilling new wells in Catalina’s mountainous interior, or building basins to catch rainwater, but neither of these options seemed reliable.

One day in 1987, Bob Kershaw--founder of a Gardena company that manufactures reverse osmosis desalination systems like the one in Avalon--docked his boat at Hamilton Cove and tried to strike a deal with the project manager.

“I told him I’d trade him a water-maker for one of those penthouses,” recalled Kershaw, an engineer and president of Village Marine. “He said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I gave him my card and he called me back. That’s how we got started.”

Initially, Hamilton Cove planned to install the plant next to its condominiums, and produce just enough water for the homeowners. But the developer didn’t want to be in the water business, and it didn’t make economic sense to build a plant to meet such a small demand. Consequently, the company covered the costs for a larger operation to be owned and run by Edison at Pebbly Beach.

“It’s tough to be the first guy on the block to do one of these plants, but we think this is a win-win situation all the way around,” said Bruce Lewis, director of development for Whitehawk Partnership, the Hamilton Cove builder.

Wayne Griffin, executive director of the Catalina Chamber of Commerce, couldn’t agree more.

“Everybody is very, very excited about this, because for the first time the island will have a reliable water source,” Griffin said.

Reliable water, he noted, is a commodity particularly precious in a town that earns its living from the 1 million tourists who visit each year. During a drought in the late 1970s, water supplies plummeted and businesses took a beating.

Hoping to prevent a replay of that painful episode, Avalon has installed a dual piping system that supplies seawater for toilet flushing and firefighting purposes. Even that has not been enough during this stubborn five-year drought.

Two weeks ago, Edison imposed a mandatory rationing program, requiring island residents and businesses to cut their water consumption 25% from 1988 levels. With the busy summer season upon them, many hoteliers and restaurant owners are now in a panic, unsure how they will cope.

In the short run, however, the desalted water will not provide much noticeable relief. But it will ease the strain on the island’s only reservoir, which has dipped to about 25% of capacity.

“It’s not going to solve our problems overnight, but I sort of see this as the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Mayor Smith. “Before, we had to wait for the good Lord to give us rain and get us out of trouble. Now we’ve got that big ocean sitting out there, just waiting for us to use it.”

Avalon’s Desalination Plant

Five years of meager rainfall have left Santa Catalina Island in the grip of a nasty drought. The island’s only reservoir has dropped to 25% of capacity and residents and businesses are coping with mandatory water rationing. This week, help arrived in the form of a desalination plant that will meet one-third of the island’s water needs. The plant makes Avalon the first California city to use drinking water that originated in the ocean. Officials hope additional plants will follow, ultimately making the island drought-proof.

SOURCE: Southern California Edison Company 1) Seawater is pumped from two 60-foot-deep wells and piped to the plant.

2) The water continues through 11 filters that strain out silt and other large particles.

3) Pumps push the filtered water through a series of membranes in highly pressurized chambers. The semi-permeable membranes allow water molecules--but not salts and other dissolved solids--to pass through. For every 10 gallons of seawater processed, 3 gallons emerge as pure water and 7 are left as a briny byproduct.

4) The salty water is piped back to shore and into the ocean via a rock spillway. The pure water is chlorinated and pumped into the Southern California Edison system.

Initially, the plant will send 130,000 gallons of desalinated water a day by pipe to Catalina homes and businesses--enough to meet one-third of the island’s needs. By August, the capacity will be 200,000 gallons per day.