Desalination Moving Forward in California

The California Drought has driven attention to desalination as potential source of water supply, with coverage in the news media and blogosphere regularly making its way into the newsfeeds of those that watch the drought. But the concept has been met with varying levels of reception. Objections most often come from perceptions and projections of the cost for the desalinated water and environmental concerns, such as the footprint of the plant, location and type of intakes and brine disposal issues. However, the situation is spurring innovation, and a series of recent actions show that desalination is moving forward in California.

In the Central Valley, Panoche Water and Drainage District is moving forward with a solar desalination facility. In 2013, WaterFX operated a demonstration project in the district proving that they can use solar energy to treat salt-impaired drainage water to freshwater standards. According to a recent announcement, they are expanding the project, which will ultimately generate up to 5,000 AF per year.

“Given the trend of highly uncertain inputs from the Delta, we need to develop a reliable supply of water in the Central Valley. This is a sustainable solution that can provide a substantial amount of additional water,” said Panoche Water and Drainage District’s manager, Dennis Falaschi, “After seeing the results from the demonstration plant by WaterFX™, we’re eager to get the HydroRevolution plant online quickly and optimistic about seeing others replicate what we’re doing here.”

Innovation in seawater desalination includes advocacy for nuclear desalination. Alexander Balkin, a former analyst for chief financial officer of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, wrote an opinion for the Sacramento Bee arguing that policymakers need to think outside the box. Balkin proposes the use of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station for desalination. Southern California Edison closed the plant in 2012 because of faulty turbines. But nuclear desalination process does not need the turbines, so the San Onofre plant is dormant infrastructure waiting to be used. (For more, read Balkin’s opinion “Soapbox: Nuclear Reactor Could Be Answer to Desalination,” Sacramento Bee, July 15, 2015).

A new technology not specific to California also holds promise for making desalination a more viable water supply option.  EFD Corporation has a patented a technology to deal with brine disposal, ultimately turning what is now viewed as a waste product and a problem to overcome into a revenue stream. For more information, see “Transforming Brine into an Income Stream,” this issue.

The forward momentum of desalination in California is also driven by agencies taking actions to move forward with seawater desalination plans.

On July 13, 2015, West Basin Municipal Water District (“West Basin”) announced that its board of directors had voted to begin an Environmental Impact Report for an ocean-water desalination project. The EIR will evaluate the environmental impacts of a 20 MGD and a 60 MGD desalination facility. Potential sites for the plant are El Segundo and Redondo Beach. The EIR will also include a study West Basin is currently conducting on subsurface intakes. The subsurface intake study, which is partially funded by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, will identify all of the subsurface intake technologies and will serve as guidance to help parties determine whether a given subsurface technology is suitable for a particular desalination project.

Through its Ocean-Water Desalination Program, West Basin is also working on a biofouling and corrosion study funded by the Metropolitan Water District Foundational Actions Program. Through the on-shore component of this study, West Basin is designing, constructing and operating a simulated intake piping system to evaluate different strategies for controlling biofouling. Through the off-shore component, the district is exposing different wedge-wire materials and coating to the ocean environment and assessing them for biofouling and corrosion rates.  This study is due to be completed by the end of 2015.

On July 21, 2015 the Santa Barbara City Council approved an Installment Sale Agreement accepting the terms of a 20-year State Revolving Fund (“SRF”) loan from the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Drinking Water. The $55 million loan will cover the costs to reactivate the Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility. In addition, the council authorized the expenditure of $43,437,234 for the full Design / Build / Operate (“D/B/O”) contract. The DBO contract has a price tag of $44,757,234, but the council approved expenditure of $1.32 million in June to start the design phase and keep the project on schedule. The remaining funds of the $55 million will cover additional design, engineering and planning costs; engineering and administrative costs incurred during construction; legal and other costs; and NPDES permitting fees and the intake and potable reuse study. A small portion of the funding is reserved for contingencies.

Santa Barbara constructed the plant as an alternate supply source during the during the 1990’s, but when normal hydrology returned, the plant was deactivated and maintained in long-term stand-by mode to meet needs in a water emergency. The city is working to reactivate it as a permanent facility. (For additional background on the reactivation of Santa Barbara’s desalination plant, see “Reactivation of Santa Barbara Desalination Plant Moving Forward,” JOW March 2015).


Written by Marta L. Weismann