Accord by MWD, Edison on Desalination Erodes


As California withered under a five-year drought, the idealistic notion of tapping into the Pacific Ocean for drinking water seemed like the ultimate solution.

Politicians touted it. Some cities decided to try it. And two utility giants--the Metropolitan Water District and Southern California Edison--were intrigued enough to join forces to study the feasibility of building a $1.5-billion desalination plant in Mexico.

But while the concept of desalination is still very much alive, much of that good will between the would-be partners is evaporating. Instead, there are accusations of unfairness and betrayal as the Legislature considers a bill that would make water districts buy the expensive purified seawater--whether they needed to or not.


MWD General Manager 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.

However, the author of the legislation, Assemblyman Richard Polanco, says MWD and other water agencies are only sore because the proposal would break their control over the lifeblood of California.

“It’s a David-and-Goliath situation right now,” said Polanco, a combative Democrat from East Los Angeles 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 state’s water establishment.

The battle lines came into sharp focus last week when Edison lobbyists showed up at a hearing of a Senate water committee that approved the bill 6 to 3 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 that would force them to buy up to 8% of their water 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 in six Southern California counties, 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.

The amount equals the capacity of the 750 desalination plants already operating in the United States, according to Senate statistics. That does not even take into account the added demand from water agencies serving the rest of the state.

Said Polanco: “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.”

There are two ways to desalinate seawater, experts say, and both are 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.

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

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 begun operating on Santa Catalina Island. The city of Morro Bay is expected to open a 600,000-gallon-a-day plant next month. A planned Santa Barbara plant, to open as early as next year, would produce 7.5 million gallons of purified water a day. San Diego authorities also are studying a desalination plant near the Mexican 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.

Among Bechtel’s six partners are the MWD and Edison, which agreed to kick in $100,000 each to finance the feasibility study, scheduled to be completed in October. Other partners are Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the San Diego County Water Authority 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.

The partnership seemed amicable until last week’s Senate hearing when MWD officials said they became convinced Edison was the power behind the bill. Edison lobbyists showed up and, although they did not testify, were seen congratulating Polanco after the vote.

“It’s one thing for them to enter into an agreement with us to produce (desalinated) water,” MWD’s Boronkay said 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.”

Boronkay said he has long had the “suspicion” that Edison was the secret force behind the Polanco bill, which would develop new customers for electricity with each desalination plant that would be built in its service area.

Edison lobbyist Tommy Ross maintained that his company has been on record in favor of the bill since May and rejected the notion that there was an attempt 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,” he said.

Boronkay noted, however, that Edison could directly cash in on desalination under the bill by retrofitting its coastal power plants to distill seawater.

Orlando Ortega, Edison’s manager of engineering and construction, confirmed that the utility is considering adding a desalination capability when it replaces boilers later this decade at its Los Alamitos power plant as well as in a small desalination demonstration project with MWD at its Huntington Beach boilers.

“The credit we would get is helping society (solve) its problems,” said Ortega. “If there is some money left, fine. We would take that. But up until now, it hasn’t been seen as a business opportunity.”

Polanco said last week’s vote was the biggest hurdle for his bill. But the MWD and the water establishment have vowed to kill the measure when it comes up for a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee today.

While the bill’s fate will have no direct effect on current desalination proposals, it has strained relationships between two new partners in the desalting movement.

“I don’t know what to do about it,” Boronkay said about his displeasure with Edison. “If they are working with us and they are going to do something in the water area, you’d think they’d call me.”