New Desalination Effort in O.C.

Times Staff Writers

A major supplier of water in Orange County is exploring potential partnerships between government and industry to develop a desalination plant that could help reduce demands on the county's vast groundwater basin.

The efforts of the Orange County Water District come as Huntington Beach is considering a private venture by Poseidon Resources to build and operate a $250-million desalination facility at the AES power plant on Pacific Coast Highway.

Last week, the City Council postponed a decision on the controversial proposal amid increasing questions about the project's economic feasibility, environmental impact and whether a public resource, the ocean, should be tapped by a totally private operation. The vote was rescheduled for Dec. 15.

If a government agency such as a water district were involved, the city would lose its ability to stop the project, which has been mired in controversy for almost two years. State law exempts government water projects from local planning and zoning authority.

Poseidon project manager Billy Owens said the company wants approval from the city. But it could join a future partnership with a water agency, he said, if that agency chose, for example, to pursue its own desalination project at the AES site.

If the city rejects Poseidon's proposal, "we could come back in one year and refile ourselves," Owens said. "If the water agencies get impatient, they could decide to do something themselves."

Orange County Water District officials have been interested in ocean desalination to reduce demands on groundwater supplies and secure alternative sources of water.

"It might fit in with Poseidon's plans, and it might not. But the time is ripe to look at whether ocean desalination makes sense in Orange County," said Denis R. Bilodeau, president of the water district's board of directors.

The agency manages the county's enormous groundwater basin, which supplies half the water needs of 2.3 million people in northern, central and coastal Orange County. Its board of directors comprises elected officials within its service area.

District officials view desalination as a way to lessen demand on the basin, preventing further saltwater intrusion.

This year, the district joined forces with the Municipal Water District of Orange County in a conceptual study of a desalination plant that could be built at the AES site in Huntington Beach. The production capacity would be 50 million gallons of fresh water a day, the same as Poseidon's plan.

In the study, water districts in the county would manage the project and contract with a developer -- in this case Shea Construction Co. -- to build the plant. Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Newport Beach would receive water from the new facility and reduce their reliance on the groundwater basin by 95%.

Through grants and subsidies, the report stated, the cost of desalinated water could be reduced to between $359 and $880 per acre-foot, which is 326,000 gallons, enough for two families for a year.

Without subsidies, desalinated water costs between $609 and $1,130 per acre-foot, the report stated. Imported water from the Colorado River costs about $500 per acre-foot; water from the county aquifer costs about $150 per acre-foot.

The study was released in October as the Poseidon project was making its way through Huntington Beach City Hall. The Municipal Water District of Orange County has not proceeded further. But the Orange County Water District is continuing to consider the proposal.

Bilodeau said the board will decide soon whether to send letters to engineering firms, builders and companies with expertise in water projects to solicit their ideas about building a desalination plant in the county.

Councilwoman Debbie Cook, another critic of the project, said it would be tough for anyone to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach -- Poseidon or a public agency -- because the facility would be too expensive.

Project sponsors also would have the same level of state scrutiny from the California Coastal Commission, the Department of Fish and Game and other regulators.

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