In desal's past and future, lessons for Santa Cruz?
By J.M. BROWN
Santa Cruz Sentinel, 9/29/12
MOSS LANDING -- Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek Water District are proposing a seawater desalination facility at a time when the popularity of tapping the ocean to create more drinking water is growing again.
Since the early 1990s, when a number of desalination plants were shuttered due to high energy costs, water managers looking to augment supply from overused rivers, streams and groundwater basins are increasingly returning to the idea of removing salt from seawater. With an uneven history of desalination in California, it's hard for regulators and voters to predict which proposals might be successful.
According to the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, the 17 projects proposed statewide range in size from 10 times smaller than the Santa Cruz facility to 20 times larger. While the biggest projects are in Southern California, the Central Coast has nine, the most of any region.
There are three competing to serve the Monterey Peninsula, where water agencies must drastically reduce pumping from the Carmel River by 2017 to improve habitat for steelhead and address a host of other environmental issues caused by overpumping. The developer of the largest plan believes he also can serve Santa Cruz and Soquel Creek.
"Don't build a bunch of expensive, high-carbon footprint, environmentally damaging boutique desal plants around the bay," said Brent Constantz, chief executive officer for DeepWaterDesal. "Just build one regional facility, which is what Marine Sanctuary guidelines call for."
Bill Kocher, Santa Cruz's water director, said he believes the Moss Landing project has potential but wouldn't solve local problems fast enough. Santa Cruz is seeking a new supply to safeguard against drought and the Soquel Creek district needs to reduce its groundwater pumping in an overdrafted basin showing saltwater intrusion.
"I don't know whether it's feasible to deal with all the problems with water that are related to the Carmel
River and produce enough water that would also meet the needs of Soquel Creek and the city through a pipeline that comes up through prime ag land," Kocher said. "There are a sufficient number of questions that it doesn't make sense that the city would just sit back and see what happens."
Constantz, whose $350 million project would produce 25 million gallons of water per day, said his company eventually could become a utility provider or sell to a public agency if approved by regulators.
He said he could sell Santa Cruz water for less than what it costs the city to produce water now. Constantz estimates the price for Santa Cruz would be $2,250 per acre foot, or $100 less than the city's cost per acre foot in 2011.
Desal's price for Santa Cruz would include the cost of a new pipeline for conveying water to Santa Cruz County, about $27 million, as such costs would be built into bonds sold for the project, Constantz said. By comparison, the cost for Santa Cruz to do desalination and a host of planned capital projects will be $3,300 acre feet by 2021, according to estimates from the city.
Constantz said he can do desal cheaper because the project will buy electricity directly from the adjacent Dynegy power plant and use an existing intake and outfall system, avoiding more cost and environmental impacts. Plus, he said costs of the project are spread out over a much larger volume of water -- 10 times the maximum amount created in Santa Cruz each day.
MONTEREY COUNTY DESAL
The intake for DeepWater Desal would be in 100 feet of water off Moss Landing, and brine concentrate left after salt was pushed out through high-pressure membranes would be diluted with cooling water from the power plant. The solution would be sent back to sea using the power plant's outfall.
Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said he is intrigued by the DeepWater Desal proposal and may consider having his agency join the project for the purpose of environmental analysis.
"There is no federal agency I would want to do that review than us," Michel said.
Meanwhile, an advisory committee is studying the cost and logistics of the plan, as well as a proposal by California American Water in Marina and one by businessman Nader Agha, called the People's Project, also in Moss Landing.
If there isn't a new source to replace water from the Carmel River and Seaside Basin, supply for customers "will drop off a cliff," California American Water spokeswoman Catherine Bowie said.
The company withdrew in January from a regional desalination plan, choosing instead to pursue its own proposal to produce 5-9 million gallons per day. Although water rates are expected to double to pay for the $370 million plant and other improvements, Bowie said, "We think we have a plan with the least risk."
Agah has proposed building a 10-million-gallon-per-day facility in Moss Landing for about $129 million. In July, the city of Pacific Grove signed on as the lead agency.
Regulators will determine whether any of these projects, including Santa Cruz's, are regional enough -- a question that could benefit DeepWater Desal given the amount of water it would create for the number of people it could serve throughout Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties.
"Is having one large desal facility better than having several smaller ones?" asked Peter von Langen, an engineering geologist with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. "I don't think we have a direct answer to that."
SUCCESS IN SAND CITY
Monterey County is home to one of the state's only municipally owned desalination plants, a small Sand City facility operated by California American Water. Approved in 2010 and built by the same firm designing the Santa Cruz plant, the facility was developed to support new housing in a largely industrial city that had been under a moratorium on water hook-ups.
"There was no way out," said Richard Simonitch, city engineer. "We knew we had to do something."
The $14 million plant takes in brackish water, a mix of seawater and freshwater, from four beach wells 60-feet deep and can produce about 100 million gallons of drinking water each year. The brine concentrate does not exceed the salinity of seawater and is injected into wells beneath the coastal bluff.
While treating less-salty brackish water requires less energy than removing salt from seawater, "There is significantly higher electricity consumption you have to look at" regarding any kind of desalination, said Eric Sabolsice Jr, general manager of the coastal division of California American Water.
But, he said, the bigger carbon footprint has to be weighed against the environmental benefits of restoring "the natural ecosystem in the Carmel River."
Opponents of desalination are concerned about the energy costs, environmental effects on marine life and potential for inducing growth. But there is little known about the long-term impacts of desalination in California because many of the first plants were shuttered, leading critics to wonder if the same could happen in Santa Cruz.
Suffering from drought rationing, Morro Bay built a plant in 1992 capable of producing a fifth of the amount of water proposed in Santa Cruz. Later, Morro Bay voters opted to join the state water project, which, in addition to the desal plant's high energy costs, made the facility largely obsolete.
Outgoing Mayor William Yates, who also was mayor in 1992, said he has no regrets pursuing the plant. He remembers all too well how residents had to register the number of people living in their home to find out how much water they would receive.
"It has gotten us through crises for 20 years," he said. "It was never built with the intention to be the primary water source. If we got in trouble, it would be a last resort."
Morro Bay, a town of about 10,000, has cranked up the plant occasionally to get through dry periods but not since 2005. Four years later, the city converted a portion of the facility to treat brackish water pumped from beach wells. The brine is mixed with cooling water from an adjacent power plant and discharged into the ocean.
When state water is low, the city turns to the brackish plant, which has cost $1.1 million so far to retrofit, and draws from two groundwater basins even though they suffer from nitrate contamination. The city would like to make the seawater plant fully operational again to secure supply, but that will prove difficult.
The plant's permits for brine disposal and intake wells expired in 1999, and the city did not conduct a full environmental analysis or seek a state Coastal Commission permit to do the conversion to brackish water. Rather, the city received permits from the state public health department and regional water board, and made a change in its own coastal plan.
"We were clever about that," said Dylan Wade, the city's capital projects manager, adding he is anxious to stabilize supply with a revamped seawater facility. "When you're the guy who is responsible for getting people water, you feel that way."
Tom Luster, a Coastal Commission environmental scientist, said the agency has launched an investigation into the Morro Bay facility, adding, "We're looking into what's permitted and what isn't and what the next steps might be."
Wade acknowledged the expired permit, but said the city believes the local coastal plan amendment processed before the permit expired should allow the plant to continue running. Still, he said the city will apply for a coastal permit after resolving a separate issue with the commission concerning wastewater treatment upgrades.
Longtime Morro Bay residents Marla Jo and Richard Sadowski believe the city should address groundwater contamination before trying to expand the desalination plant.
"Instead of spending money on desalination, we have to repair our infrastructure," Richard Sadowski said, adding he believes the city acted illegally by retrofitting the desal plant for brackish water. "You can't just write yourself a permit for that."
During the drought of the early 1990s, Santa Barbara also built a desalination plant and joined the state water project. But once the drought ended, the 1992 facility was mothballed and conservation sharply decreased demand, leaving the city and neighboring districts with little use for the $34 million facility, according to the Pacific Institute.
A $7 million plant built in Marina in 1997 to provide 300,000 gallons per day was also later closed due to energy costs. The Marina Coast Water District was a partner in the regional project abandoned by California American Water.
Follow Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmbrownreports
MONTEREY COUNTY PROPOSALS
SIZE: 25 million gallons per day
LOCATION: Moss Landing
COST: $350 million
CALIFORNIA AMERICAN WATER
SIZE: 5-9 million gallons per day
COST: $370 million
THE PEOPLE'S PROJECT
SIZE: 10 million gallons per day
LOCATION: Moss Landing
COST: $129 million
SOURCE: Pacific Institute, Sentinel reporting