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MWD Officials Say Desalination Plan Would Be Too Costly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials at the Metropolitan Water District are recommending that the giant water wholesaler end its involvement in a proposed desalination plant in Baja California after a study showed that producing and delivering the desalted water could cost more than six times the current price of treated water.

Water officials across Southern California expressed disappointment about the new, higher estimated cost of extracting freshwater from the sea, at a plant designed to produce 100 million gallons of desalted water per day.

According to a feasibility study released this week, the price of the desalinated water would be about $1,600 an acre-foot, compared to today’s price of $261. Many waters officials said that price may be prohibitive.

At the MWD, which contributed $100,000 toward the cost of the nine-month study, officials said Thursday that they have evaluated the study and recommended against involvement in the Baja California Desalination Project, which would cost more than $1.5 billion to build.

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“MWD staff at this point doesn’t intend to study it any further,” said Don Adams, director of resources at MWD. “These matters are up to the board. But I think the board will go along with that. We’re pretty definite.”

Adams’ comments echoed a recent memo to MWD’s board of directors from Carl Boronkay, MWD’s general manager.

“The fact is, we must seek to ‘fill up’ the Colorado River Aqueduct, ‘firm up’ our entitlement to State Project water and make efficient use of the water available before we take on large-scale seawater desalination,” the memo said.

MWD’s flagging interest in the project, which would combine a desalination facility with an electrical plant, was not good news to Bechtel Power Corp. and Coastal Gas Corp., the partnership that proposed the project earlier this year to help address the problems of drought-stricken Southern California.

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David C. Nerell, a Bechtel project manager, said that while the cost of desalting water was higher than his company had hoped, “we still have a great deal of interest in this project. We have hopes that we can move forward with it.”

MWD’s attitude, however, is having an impact on how other co-sponsors of the feasibility study regard the project. Jerry Gewe, engineer of water resources at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said Thursday that his department has decided to put other projects ahead of desalination.

“In the same manner that MWD is losing steam . . . for purchasing water from the Baja project, the same would be true of the city of Los Angeles,” he said. “We’re looking basically at doing reclamation projects in the $500- to $700-per-acre-foot range and are not really enthusiastic about moving up into the $1,500 and $1,600 range. We tend to feel we should do those projects first and look at desalination as those projects run out a decade or so from now.”


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