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South Coast desalination project is in the works

The South Coast Water District is forging ahead as the lone agency intent on making a desalination facility in Dana Point a reality after more than 10 years of discussion.

The district, which serves customers in South Laguna, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, wants to build a treatment plant on 30 acres of property it owns near San Juan Creek in hopes of eventually producing 15 million gallons of potable water a day.

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District officials will hold a community meeting Thursday in Dana Point to announce that it will begin working on an environmental impact report for the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project.

But the district could be shouldering all the risk. Agencies that showed initial interest have opted not to partner with South Coast on the project, at least for now. The cities of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente also at one time expressed interest.

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South Coast's general manager, Andy Brunhart, says the district should proceed anyway, explaining that a desalination plant would be a hedge against a couple of risks facing Californians: earthquakes and drought. The state is currently in its fifth year of severe drought, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Brunhart said desalination would provide a "reliable, sustainable, drought-proof source of local water."

And the additional local source of water would provide a buffer in case an earthquake damages pipes that deliver imported water, Brunhart said.

"We believe it's the right thing to do," Brunhart said.

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The Municipal Water District of Orange County, a regional wholesaler, is providing technical assistance for the project.

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FOR THE RECORD

March 28, 1:26 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly named the Metropolitan Water District of Orange County as providing technical assistance on the proposed desalination project. The Municipal Water District of Orange County is providing the assistance.

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Municipal began exploring desalination in 2002 to improve the reliability of the water supply in south Orange County, according to South Coast's website.

Up the coast, Poseidon Water is proposing to build a $1-billion desalination facility in Huntington Beach that could produce 50 million gallons of water per day. The California Coastal Commission must still rule on Poseidon's construction permit.

For the Doheny project, Municipal partnered with other agencies to study the area's geology and land availability and determined the site could house a desalination facility.

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But none of the agencies has signed on to the project.

Laguna Beach County Water District officials opted out of the Doheny project after securing water from another source — the Santa Ana River Basin.

"Two-thirds of our [water] supply from groundwater made the project not feasible for us at this point," said Christopher Regan, the assistant general manager for the district.

In February, Laguna Beach County agreed to pay the Orange County Water District $3.1 million to pull 2,025 acre-feet of groundwater each year from the basin. The OCWD was formed by the Legislature to manage the groundwater basin supply.

Meanwhile, customers in Moulton Niguel Water District's boundaries have cut water consumption enough that the demand for new sources of water is not as urgent as in previous years, district General Manager Joone Lopez said.

"We look at all local projects and assess which ones make the most sense and whether they are cost effective," Lopez said.

Lopez said Moulton Niguel, which covers Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills and Laguna Niguel, is focusing its efforts on recycled-water projects.

South Coast imports 80% of its drinking water — from the Colorado River and Northern California sources. The remaining 20% comes from recycled and groundwater sources.

Design and construction of the Doheny desalination facility could cost $85 million to $90 million, Brunhart said. South Coast's plan is to construct a facility that produces 4 million to 5 million gallons of water per day with a possibility of increasing the output to 15 million gallons daily.

Unless other agencies partner with South Coast, the district anticipates footing the bill for design and construction, Brunhart said.

He said he hopes to know by May what the cost per acre foot of water might be.

"That may stimulate more interest" in the Doheny facility, Brunhart said.

The EIR will evaluate the potential effects on biological life in and near San Juan Creek of ocean water intake and discharge, South Coast's website said.

"The proposed slant well intake system may draw in a small percentage of onshore groundwater, which may affect the existing San Juan Creek seasonal lagoon," the website said.

Under the proposal, crews would drill wells extending from Doheny State Beach to draw water from under the ocean floor rather than open water.

Thursday's meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the Dana Point Community Center, at 34052 Del Obispo St. in Dana Point.

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