By MADISON HIRNEISEN
THE CENTER SQUARE
(The Center Square) – Less than six months after the denial of a massive desalination project in Huntington Beach, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a $140 million desalination project in Orange County on Thursday.
The desalination project, which will be located in Dana Point, is expected to produce 5 million gallons of water per day to the South Coast Water District, reducing the area’s “reliance on imported water,” according to a report from the California Coastal Commission. The SCWD provides water to roughly 35,000 residents and 1,000 businesses in Orange County.
As the state faces a prolonged drought and the intense impacts of climate change, proponents of the project told commissioners Thursday that desalination is a key part of bolstering water supply in the future.
“Ocean desal is an essential component of the district’s water supply portfolio and the solution for climate change resilient water supply,” SCWD General Manager Rick Shintaku told commissioners.
Commission staff recommended approval of the project with special conditions, including mitigations to reduce the impact to marine life, implement hazard plans and study the impact of the project’s water rates on low-income customers.
Kate Hucklebridge, north coast deputy director at the Coastal Commission, acknowledged Thursday that the project is not perfect and “will lead to coastal impacts,” but said impacts have been “avoided, minimized and mitigated to the maximum extent feasible as required by the Coastal Act.” She noted that the project uses subsurface intakes instead of open ocean intakes, “drastically reducing impacts to marine organisms.”
The project won unanimous approval from the Coastal Commission on Thursday, with several commissioners saying it could serve as a model for future proposals. After commissioners denied a desalination project that would have provided 50 million gallons of drinking water in Huntington Beach, the panel came under a “cloud of doubt” about the approval of future projects, Commissioner Dayna Bochco said Thursday.
“I’m glad now that we can show other agencies and whoever else is interested in this that we are fully supportive of desal when it’s a good project,” Ms. Bochco said.
Some commissioners raised concerns about the potential cost impacts to customers, particularly lower-income residents during Thursday’s hearing. A 2021 fiscal analysis from SCWD estimated cost increases of $2 to $7 per household each month.
To address these concerns, one of the project’s special conditions requires SCWD to submit a report within a year that identifies low-income customers in the project’s service area and recommendations to alleviate cost burdens. Commissioners agreed on Thursday to add and emphasize customer outreach in the special condition.
Thursday’s meeting was less contentious than the commission’s May meeting on the Huntington Beach project, where some public commenters brought signs and dressed as marine life in protest. Still, public commenters remained divided on whether the commission should approve or deny the project.
Several opponents of the project raised concerns about the project’s potential impact on coastal habitats and the energy needed to power the facility. Sonia Diaz, public policy manager at Outdoor Outreach voiced concern about the project, including the potential closure of campgrounds at Doheny State Beach.
“It’s still unclear to me how the mitigation measures proposed will not still disproportionately impact the communities that use the space for day use, as well as overnight use,” Ms. Diaz said.
Glenn Farrel, executive director of Cal Desal, urged the commission to approve the project on Thursday, emphasizing that the state needs an “all of the above approach” to address water resilience.
“As we move into a potential fourth year of drought in California – and increasingly challenged hydrology on a year-after-year basis due to our changing climate and aridification of the West – our water managers need to have the tools available to them that will work for their communities,” Mr. Farrel told The Center Square in a statement. “We’re really pleased that the Coastal Commission recognizes the value that the Doheny Desalination Project will bring to the southern Orange County region in terms of water and drought resilience and protecting those residents’ quality of life and economy during multi-year droughts.”
Next month, the Coastal Commission is set to hold a public hearing on a proposed desalination project in Monterey County, which is estimated to produce up to 6.4 million gallons of water per day.