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S.D., Other Water Districts Assail Desalination Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As California withered under a five-year drought, the idealistic notion of tapping into the Pacific Ocean for drinking water loomed as promising as the Age of Aquarius.

Politicians touted it. Consumers pined for it. And even three utility giants--the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California Edison and the San Diego County Water Authority--became so intrigued that they agreed to join forces as part of a group to study an ambitious plan to build a $1.5-billion desalination plant in Mexico. In addition, MWD and Edison began discussing joint construction of a small desalting unit at the electric utility’s Huntington Beach power plant.

But now, although the idea of desalination is still very much alive, much of that good will is evaporating into accusations of unfairness and betrayal as the Legislature considers a bill that would make water districts buy the expensive purified seawater--whether they need it or not.

MWD Executive Director Carl Boronkay has accused partner Edison of pulling a political double-cross. He says Edison is making sure desalted water is “shoved down my throat” by backing the measure, which would create a new market for the electric company.

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And an official from the San Diego County Water Authority, also a partner in the Mexico project, calls the bill “a hand grenade under the tent . . . it’s a disaster.”

However, the author of the legislation, Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), says officials of MWD, San Diego County Water Authority and other water agencies are only sore because his proposal would break their control over the lifeblood of California.

“It’s a David-and-Goliath situation right now,” said Polanco, who has received $7,000 in campaign contributions from Southern California Edison since 1989. “The Goliath is obviously the Metropolitan Water District and the aqua industry, who want to keep it business as usual.”

Actually, the fight is shaping up more like Goliath versus Goliath, with the politically powerful Edison squaring off against MWD and the water establishment over the Polanco bill.

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The battle lines came into sharper focus Tuesday, when Edison lobbyists showed up at a Senate water committee that voted, 6 to 3, to pass the bill over the objections of MWD and other water suppliers.

The vote was an unpleasant surprise to water agencies, and it breathed new life into the controversial proposal to force them to buy up to 8% of their supply from desalination plants.

Prices for the purified water would be based on what an agency otherwise would have to pay to find new water sources and build aqueducts and pumping stations for delivery.

In the case of MWD, water wholesaler to 27 agencies throughout Southern California, the requirement would mean buying up to 250,000 acre-feet of desalted water a year--nearly 81.4 trillion gallons, or enough to supply the needs of more than a million people.

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“If we don’t create the market and mandate the purchase . . . those companies that are producing this technology are not going to be willing to do it in California to the degree that it is going to make a difference,” Polanco said.

Water officials say they are also worried about the quality of the water they would be forced to purchase. Polanco’s bill leaves that responsibility to the water agencies and not to the desalting plants, which could also be built inland to treat brackish water drawn from underground wells.

“We might be talking about one or two dozen little plants where we’d have to monitor quality,” said Byron M. Buck, San Diego County Water Authority’s Water Resources Planning Director. “That alone is going to increase costs.”

There are two ways to desalinate seawater, experts say, both of them expensive. Reverse-osmosis shoots it through an extremely fine membrane, which traps salt and impurities. Distillation boils it so purified water can be reclaimed as condensed steam.

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The huge amounts of energy needed for either process mean that desalted water can cost up to $2,000 an acre-foot, contrasted with an average $250 an acre-foot that most California water agencies pay to draw their allotments from the Colorado River or the State Water Project.

However, despite the costs, some in California already have turned to desalination as a source of water. A small-scale plant, supplying 130,000 gallons for a new housing project, has just began operating on Catalina Island, while the city of Morro Bay is expected to open a 600,000-gallon-a-day plant next month. Plans for a Santa Barbara plant, to open as early as next year, would produce 7.5 million gallons of purified water a day. San Diego authorities are studying a desalination plant in the South Bay, near the border.

The most ambitious scheme, however, is a proposal by San Francisco-based Bechtel Corp. to build a $1.5-billion natural gas plant off the coast of Baja California that would produce 500 megawatts of electricity and distill more than 100 million gallons of seawater a day.

It would be one of the largest desalting plants in the world, with about 75% of its processed water going to Southern California and the rest staying in Mexico, say MWD officials.

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Among Bechtel’s six partners are the MWD, San Diego County Water Authority and Edison, which agreed to kick in $100,000 each to study the idea. Other partners are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Houston-based Coastal Corp., an energy firm.

Edison also signed a separate letter promising to cooperate with MWD during the drought by swapping other technical information, said an Edison spokesman.

It was at the Senate hearing last Tuesday that the partnership hit stormy seas. Edison lobbyists showed up and, although they did not testify, they were seen congratulating Polanco after the vote.

“It’s one thing for them to enter into an agreement with us to produce water,” Boronkay fumed later. “It’s another thing to put the gun to our heads that says you have to buy it. . . . We’re a little annoyed with this legislative end-run.”

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Boronkay said he has long had the “suspicion” that Edison was the secret force behind the Polanco bill, which would create a new customer for electricity each time a desalination plant was built in Edison’s service area.

“It’s a way for them to sell electricity and make money,” added Buck, from San Diego County. “It would allow (Edison’s unregulated Mission Energy subsidiary) to get into the business.

“It’s a special-interest bill that would benefit Southern California Edison . . . and those profits would come from the pockets” of water customers, added Buck.

Water officials also said that Edison could cash in on desalination directly by retrofitting its coastal power plants to distill seawater.

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Orlando Ortega, Edison’s manager of engineering and construction, confirmed that the utility is considering adding desalination capacity when it replaces boilers later this decade at its Los Alamitos plant. That is in addition to a small $60-million desalting demonstration project it is planning with MWD for Edison’s Huntington Beach power plant.

“The credit we would get is helping society solving its problems,” Ortega said of Edison’s interest in desalination.

Edison lobbyist Tommy Ross rejected the notion that his company, on record in favor of the bill since May, is trying to put one over on MWD. “The bill is not sponsored by Southern California Edison, so to consider this to be a ploy on our part in any regard is inaccurate,”

Another showdown over the bill is scheduled Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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