Doheny desalination plant in Dana Point clears final regulatory hurdle – Orange County Register

State officials on Friday cleared the final major regulatory hurdle for the Doheny desalination plant, which aims to use the ocean to help shore up drinking water supplies for drought-ridden Southern California.

The California State Lands Commission unanimously granted South Coast Water District a 20-year lease for land off Doheny State Beach, in Dana Point. The water district plans to build a $140 million plant there that will turn 5 million gallons of ocean water into drinking water each day.

Before voting to advance the project, outgoing State Controller Betty Yee, who serves as chair of the commission, said she believes it can serve as a model to help desalination become part of California’s “water toolkit” going forward.

“There is a statewide effort to look at developing some statewide guidelines and standards for how we look at desal going forward,” Yee said. “I hope that this project can provide a starting point for some of the considerations to be made about how we look at desal projects for the state of California.”

During the same meeting, commissioners terminated Poseidon Resources’ interest in a lease granted in 2007 for nearly 12 acres of tidal land off the shore of Huntington Beach. Poseidon planned to develop a much-larger desalination plant there, but that project was shot down by the California Coastal Commission in May. On Friday, Susan Jordan, founder of the California Coastal Protection Network, described the Poseidon project as the “poster child for how not to do desalination.”

While Poseidon’s project would have primarily served an area with access to a vast underground water aquifer, the Doheny project will serve residents who rely almost entirely reliant on pricey, limited imports from the Colorado River or State Water Project. Poseidon’s project also was much larger and more costly than the one pitched for Doheny. And while that bigger project drew criticism from environmental groups because of how it could have impacted water quality and marine life, the Doheny project’s design plan has stirred much less opposition.

The Doheny plant would be the first commercial-scale desalination project to use slant wells designed to collect ocean water from beneath the seafloor and pull it through sand, a process aimed at preventing marine life from getting sucked into the pipelines. Seawater is slated to be routed to a treatment plant that will be built at a 10-acre site on the other side of Pacific Coast Highway that’s already owned by SCWD.

The intake for those wells will be several hundred feet from shore, in territory managed by the State Lands Commission. So the lease approved Friday gives the water district permission to build up to five slant wells along narrow strips of underwater land.

The state doesn’t plan to charge the water district for the lease, saying the project is of “public use and benefit.” But the state reserves the right to start charging rent down the road. (Had the Poseidon project got up and running, that private company would have been obligated to pay the state $115,500 each year.)

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, submitted lengthy comments and spoke during the meeting to raise concerns about issues related to the Doheny project. They noted brine that will be discharged from the plant, which will add concentrated salt and chemicals to waters that are frequented by whales and other marine life. They also flagged the potential for earthquakes and other risks, including environmental justice impacts.

“We’ve seen in (desalination) plants that have been built the cost go up substantially and often with low reward for those that use the least water and can afford it the least,” said Conner Everts, director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, who spoke against the Doheny project. “A small plant is not a solution when there’s cumulative impacts and they impact the local area.”

Opponents asked the commission to delay or deny approving the lease.

But a number of area water agencies, trade groups and bipartisan elected officials wrote in support of the project, which later could be scaled up — with new permits — to handle 15 million gallons of ocean water a day. Supporters included U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and  Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, who noted he’s helped secure more than $22 million in federal funds for the plant.

“We need to continue to adapt in order to maintain a reliable water system to meet the challenges of climate change,” said Charles Busslinger, director of engineering for the Municipal Water District of Orange County.

Supporters said they’re confident that the plant, which has been in the works since 2003, is now designed to limit risks. That includes routing effluent to an existing brine discharge system at South Orange County Wastewater Authority’s treatment plant, where flows are discharged two miles offshore, 100 feet below surface water. The Lands Commission on Friday also approved a new lease for the wastewater authority to include the potential flows from the Doheny plant.

The lease for the Doheny project includes several conditions of approval.

The water district must consult with tribes that have an interest in the area before starting construction and bring a report back to the commission. The water district also must study how the project will affect low-income ratepayers and take steps to reduce those impacts. And it must spell out how it plans to neutralize the plant’s potentially significant greenhouse gas emissions.

To add 5 million gallons of water a day, or enough for more than 16,000 average households, the Doheny plant is slated to use 27,000 megawatt hours of power a year. (For context, a typical Orange County household uses 6 megawatt hours a year.) The water district plans to use solar panels and possibly hydrogen fuel cells to offset a portion of that energy demand, though it also is likely to need to buy carbon offset credits, such as methane capture at a landfill or a reforestation project, to make the plant carbon neutral.

With the Lands Commission lease in place, SCWD spokesperson Sheena Johnson said the district hopes to sign agreements with partner water agencies in the first half of 2023.

South Coast Water District plans to use only 2 million gallons of water from the plant each day. As for the other 3 million gallons, the district has letters of interest in hand from San Clemente, Laguna Beach Water District and Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, who’d like to buy into the project in exchange for rights to some of the water it will produce.

Nailing down those agreements is a prerequisite for the district’s board of directors to consider approving a construction contract for the plant, Johnson said, since those partnerships would limit rate increases for SCWD customers to $2.38 per month.

The district also still needs to finalize a lease with California State Parks, which also spoke in support of the project, and get routine approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

If those steps advance as planned, Johnson said a construction contract could be awarded by late 2023. The plant would then be poised to start contributing to Southern California’s water supply as soon as 2027.

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