Laguna water districts weigh in on desalination plant

Officials from Laguna Beach's two water districts are intent on moving forward with a proposed desalination plant in Dana Point.

The Laguna Beach County Water District commissioners and board of directors voted Tuesday to consult with South Coast Water District representatives on whether they can get commitments from three other entities to build the Doheny Desalination Ocean Project.

The two districts partnered with Moulton Niguel Water District and the cities of San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente in 2005 to explore the feasibility of a desalination project that would use subsurface slant wells — which resemble pipes set a relatively flat angle — off the beach to draw as much as 30 million gallons a day of ocean water for treatment, according to the South Coast website.

The project at Doheny State Beach could yield up to 15 million gallons of potable water a day.

Studies and test drilling began in 2005 at the mouth of San Juan Creek. Results indicated the area could support a below-ground intake system, according to a Laguna Beach County staff report.

In 2006, a subsurface slant well was drilled into the sand at Doheny under the ocean floor. The 350-foot-long well is innovative technology for ocean-water intake because it draws water from under the ocean floor rather than the open ocean, according to the South Coast website.

This approach avoids many environmental concerns of open-water intake, such as the trapping of marine life, supporters say.

Engineers continued testing groundwater and the strength of submersible pumps and wells.

Each of the five agencies has paid $680,000 and received $2.8 million in grant money from organizations such as the California Department of Water Resources and the Environmental Protection Agency for testing, the staff report said.

Laguna Beach County and South Coast districts received a $200,000 grant from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in January to further assess groundwater flow, water quality and seismic risk, according to the staff report.

The total project cost is estimated at $150 million, Karl Seckel, assistant general manager of the Municipal Water District of Orange County, said at Tuesday's meeting.

Laguna Beach County customers are 100% dependent on outside water sources, which come from Northern California and the Colorado River, while South Coast is 75% dependent

If this project is funded and built it could be operational as early as 2020 and produce as much as 25% of the potable water needed by project participants, the South Coast website said.

How to fund a possible desalination project, which would need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, and what amount each agency would be responsible for remain unanswered.

"It's not the cheapest cost of water, but if you don't have water, it's the next best alternative," Seckel said. "One of the questions is, 'How fast do we move forward?'"

"There will be greater competition," said Laguna Beach County board member and City Councilman Steve Dicterow. "We should look at desalination even more. I know there will be an extra cost, but I don't see how we lose in that."

County water district Commissioner Cheryl Kinsman agreed, suggesting a scaled-back project could offset costs if certain agencies backed out.

"We have to move forward," Kinsman said. "A smaller project would be cheaper for us."

Laguna Beach County Board President and Councilman Kelly Boyd questioned Kinsman's comment, suggesting fewer agencies would produce less funding.

"My concern and the bottom line is cost," Boyd said.

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