Whenever California has a dry year, or decade, it’s hard not to look west and wonder: Why aren’t we drinking more ocean water?
It’s far from a pipe dream in places like Saudi Arabia, where desalination plants suck in supplies from the Red Sea, purge the salt, and meet half the nation’s water needs.
But while California’s population is nearly the same size as Saudi Arabia and its coastline is twice as long, such a tiny fraction of the Golden State’s tap water comes from the sea that the figure won’t register on a standard calculator without scientific notation getting involved.
The state’s supply of drinkable ocean water could jump 10% in five years — from 55 million to 60 million gallons per day — if the Doheny Desalination Plant in Dana Point becomes a reality.
The project, which is being developed by South Coast Water District in Laguna Beach, has reached a few minor milestones since the California Coastal Commission approved it last fall.
Yet other targets have been nudged back. And the plant’s projected hit to residents’ monthly water bills has inched up.
State regulators are watching the Doheny proposal, in part because it offers a real-time look at both the promise and the challenge of turning seawater into tap water for consumers in California. And they’re taking cues from the project — along with others proposed in recent years that have been less successful, including a failed venture in Huntington Beach — as they write guidelines for future desalination plants, all with a goal of getting more ocean water flowing through California’s taps before the next drought hits.
Doheny advances with caveats
Let’s start with the not-great news.
The projected cost of water from the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project has jumped 30% in the year since the California Coastal Commission voted to greenlight the Dana Point plant.
That’s according to the latest estimate from South Coast Water District, which has spent more than $10 million and 20 years planning for a desalination plant to help stabilize supplies for residents who currently depend on pricey and frequently restricted imports from the Colorado River or the State Water Project.
Water from the Doheny plant is now expected to cost $2,058 per acre foot the first year vs. the prior estimate of $1,589 per acre foot. Instead of the average customer bill going up by $2.38 a month if the plant gets built, the water district now expects monthly bills would increase by $4.01 — or perhaps more than $5 a month, if interest rates continue to jump.
Skyrocketing energy costs are the main reason for the price increase, said Rick Shintaku, general manager of South Coast Water District. Inflation and supply chain issues also have driven up construction costs, he said, while rising interest rates have compounded the challenges.
All in, the plant is now expected to cost $175 million — up from the $140 million price tag pitched last year. A fifth of the cost is already covered by state and federal grants, with more grants possible. Local ratepayers will be on the hook for the rest.
A $4 monthly bill increase is still well within the range that most residents said was acceptable in exchange for a more reliable water supply when South Coast Water District surveyed its customers three years ago, Shintaku noted. He also pointed out that while desalinated water would initially cost at least 30% more than imported water, they expect that dynamic to flip by 2032, as likely water shortages continue to drive up the cost of water from the Colorado River and State Water Project.
“That’s when we’re actually saving money and producing a reliable local supply,” Shintaku said.
The date when the plant might come online also has shifted.
While the district had hoped to start operations as soon as 2027, chief engineer Marc Serna said they’re now eyeing late 2028 or early 2029.
That’s in part because they’d hoped to sign agreements in the first half of this year with neighboring water agencies willing to help pay for the plant in exchange for a share of the water it will produce. But that hasn’t yet happened, and Shintaku said they’re now hoping to ink those deals, and get money from those partners, by the end of the year.
Without such partnerships, the project will almost certainly die, since South Coast Water customers would then have to absorb the entire cost of the plant.
The good news, Shintaku said, is that interest in the project shows no signs of waning, even as one wet year has lifted California out of drought. He said the city of San Clemente, Laguna Beach Water District, Eastern Municipal Water District in Perris and Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District are all reviewing commitment letters his district has drafted, which he said are aimed at getting the agencies to cover a share of the plant’s $10 million design contract. And his team is still pitching the plan to other agencies, with a presentation scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 6, at the Santa Margarita Water District board meeting.
South Coast Water District had hoped to award a design contract by the end of this year. Now, Serna said they’re aiming for the spring.
The district did put out a request for qualifications to interested companies in late July. With such a narrow field of companies that can develop desalination plants like this worldwide, Serna said they hope to hear back from five or six companies by their Sept. 14 deadline, then shortlist three that would be asked to submit full proposals.
That first contract would be for a company to design 60% of the facility, which Serna hopes can happen by spring 2025. At that point, the company would have to give South Coast Water a guaranteed maximum price to finish designing, building and running the facility long term.
That’s when South Coast Water and any neighboring districts that have signed on to help develop the project would have to cast their final votes on whether to cut their losses — expected to be more than $20 million at that point — or hire the company to build out what would be California’s eighth active desalination plant.
What desal looks like in California
Among the seven desalination plants operating along California’s coast today, six combined produce less water than what the Doheny plant is slated to produce each day.
Some of that water goes to homes in places such as Catalina Island, Sand City and Santa Barbara. A third is used for something other than drinking, such as running the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant or flushing toilets at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The seventh plant, in northern San Diego County, accounts for more than 90% of California’s desalinated water supply.
The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant — which came online in 2015 as a public-private partnership between San Diego Water Authority and the private company Poseidon Water — hasn’t been without controversy. Environmental groups tried to block the project from the beginning, while the cost of water from the plant has continued to go up. But the Carlsbad facility reached a milestone last fall of serving 100 billion gallons of purified ocean water to area residents, and it remains the largest desalination plant in the United States.
Interest in desalination has risen and fallen over the years as droughts have come and gone and as other water solutions have become more viable.
The West Basin Municipal Water District, which serves residents in coastal Los Angeles County, discussed building a desalination plant in El Segundo for 20 years before shelving the concept in late 2021. The agency said improvements in water recycling and conservation meant that project, which was expected to cost more than half a billion dollars, no longer made sense.
The steep price of desalinated water combined with California’s strong environmental protections have prevented other projects from moving forward in recent years.
Poseidon spent 21 years and an estimated $100 million on plans to replicate its Carlsbad facility in Huntington Beach. But the California Coastal Commission shot the project down last spring over concerns with costs and how the large facility would affect the ocean and the neighborhood.
Another private company, California American Water, has spent a decade trying to build a desalination plant in the small Monterey Bay town of Marina.
The Coastal Commission approved a scaled-back version of CalAm’s plan last fall, despite estimates that the 6.4 million gallons of water the plant is slated to produce each day could cost seven times more than traditional water supplies. The company still hasn’t applied for water permits it needs to keep the project moving forward. A CalAm spokesman said Friday that they’re working to answer outstanding questions from the regional water board and hope to file their application by the end of the year.
Gov. Gavin Newsom championed both of those controversial projects, as he’s pushed for desalination to become a bigger part of California’s water supply.
Alongside advocating for some continued use of nuclear power, Newsom’s support for more desalination is another area where he breaks with many environmental groups, who argue that the process of turning ocean water into tap water requires too much energy, is too expensive, and poses too many problems for marine life. But the governor cites dangers of continuing to overdraft our groundwater supply, as spelled out in a recent New York Times investigation. And he argues that conservation and new recycling and stormwater capture projects alone won’t be enough to meet California’s water needs amid worsening climate change.
“California needs to diversify our water portfolio and stretch existing supplies as extreme weather threatens to reduce the state’s water supply 10% by 2040,” Newsom said in a statement last fall.
Despite that push, water regulators said the only other desalination plant still pending approval in California today is a small pilot project in Fort Bragg that would use wave energy for power. But they hope a new set of guidelines that’s in the works might help.
State recommends changes
It’s not a good look for public agencies or private companies in California to spend millions of dollars on desalination dreams that never get off the ground. So a team of water and environment experts, led by the State Water Resources Control Board, spent the past year developing a set of recommendations that they hope will help expedite smart projects and dissuade riskier ones.
The draft plan, released this summer, takes several pages from the Doheny plant playbook.
It recommends, for example, that companies or public agencies avoid plans to suck ocean water in from the surface, since that process also can suck in and kill marine life. 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, which eliminates risks to most sea life.
The state draft plan also calls for projects that are sized to fit the water needs in local communities after they’ve pursued other solutions, such as conservation and recycling. That favors smaller projects, such as Doheny, vs. big plants, like the one Poseidon proposed in Huntington Beach.
Companies or public agencies also are advised to do extensive public outreach early in the process while showing they’ve taken steps to limit cost hikes and made the projects as energy efficient as possible. And the plan calls for submitting proposed projects to multiple state agencies at once, so permits can be considered concurrently.
If such recommendations are applied, the group’s report says future desalination projects “can be permitted relatively quickly,” with fewer risks to the environment or local communities.
Water board staff is sorting through public comments they received in response to the draft recommendations. They plan to publish a final set of recommended best practices this fall, then use them to develop new requirements for desalination plants in California.
Those rules are due out in 2025.