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Desalination's benefits, costs draw debate amid drought

The California drought, now in its fourth year, may give a greater sense of urgency to finishing desalination projects such as the ones that Poseidon Water is building in Carlsbad and proposing for Huntington Beach, according to the company's vice president, Scott Maloni.

However, opponents believe desalination should be the last option that cities and water agencies consider to help provide drinking water.

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"[Gov. Jerry Brown] said in his executive order [on April 1] to expedite projects and programs that supply regional water," Maloni said. "Our project and other projects are not a knee-jerk response to the current drought. We're in the third drought cycle since we've introduced the project.

"They're designed to be a long-term solution to a chronic problem."

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But Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach mayor, said: "[Desalination] will play a negative role in the state. Even if we had a plant in Huntington Beach, it doesn't stop the water restrictions, and the cost of water is going to increase dramatically."

Once the Carlsbad facility is completed in November, it is expected to provide San Diego County with about 7% of its water needs. Poseidon's proposed plant in Huntington Beach is projected to do the same in Orange County.

A major concern of those opposed to the desalination projects is the cost of Poseidon's water. The San Diego County Water Authority is expected to pay $2,014 to $2,257 per acre-foot. Meanwhile, the Orange County Water District has been in talks with the company to buy treated water from the Huntington Beach plant at a base rate of $1,003 per acre-foot, though the overall cost also would include a tiered fee.

The Orange County district currently purchases untreated water from the Municipal Water District of Orange County for about $660 per acre-foot.

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According to Cook, the difference in cost would add about $60 million per year to the Orange County Water District's expenses.

Costa Mesa-based environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper says Poseidon's water could cost ratepayers three to 10 times more the average urban Californian pays for water.

Cook said cities and water agencies should wait for the Carlsbad project to get up and running and see whether it has problems before they sign on to other desalination projects.

"We would be in a much better position to decide whether this is the way for California or not," she said. "Our climate is not like the Middle East, where they have no alternatives. We have and should investigate alternatives that are less expensive and more immediate and have multiple benefits before we go down the path of the worst option."

Alternatives such as recycling wastewater and doing more to replenish groundwater and conserve supplies should be considered before desalination, Cook and other opponents say.

"This facility will take years to build before Orange County sees any water from it,"  Coastkeeper Executive Director Garry Brown said in a statement. "Orange County needs solutions now that are sustainable, such as conservation."

Other desalination projects

Meanwhile, in south Orange County, the South Coast Water District, which serves South Laguna, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente, is trying to develop a desalination plant at Doheny State Beach that would produce 15 million gallons of potable water per day.

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Additional environmental studies, which could stretch into 2017, still need to be completed, said Andrew Brunhart, the South Coast district's general manager.

Up the coast in Santa Barbara, the drought has prompted city officials to consider reactivating a desalination plant that can produce up to 6.7 million gallons of water per day. It was built in the early 1990s for $35 million in response to another drought but wasn't used because of abundant rainfall from 1991 to 1992, according to the city's website.

Santa Barbara is planning to spend up to $40 million to update the plant for activation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Staff writer Bryce Alderton contributed to this report.

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