The California Coastal Commission (CCC) voted 11-0 Thursday to approve the Doheny Ocean Desalination Project on Dana Point in Orange County, marking a major reversal on desalination plant approvals following high-profile rejections earlier this year.
As of 2022, there are currently 12 desalination plants running at some capacity along the California coast, with the most notable one being the large Carlsbad plant outside of San Diego. In recent years, a continuing drought in California has strained water supplies across the state, pushing more and more lawmakers to start backing desalination projects. While concerns of ocean life harm and a higher than normal water cost have been major factors against approval s, the push for more plants has grown nonetheless.
However, the CCC has also been notoriously hard on approval of new plants. A desalination plant proposal in Huntington Beach, for example, was hung up for years over environmental issues. In May, the CCC finally gave an ultimate rejection of the plant that had been in progress for nearly 20 years, going against a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in support of the project that included Governor Gavin Newsom and against an appellate court ruling the previous year that had okayed the project. Many in support of the Doheny project feared yet another plant rejection under similar grounds.
But the Doheny project proved different to the CCC on Thursday. The plant would produce 5 million gallons a day for the South Coast Water District. With the district needing only 2 million gallons a day in addition to the water it already distributes, the plant would help water many neighboring districts as well, reducing the freshwater burden for a large swath of Orange County. With the drought only worsening since the Huntington Beach plant rejection in May, as well as the well intake system affecting the environment and sea life far less than previous plant proposals, the CCC ultimately approved the Doheny plant.
“I feel that the commission has been under kind of a cloud of doubt from the people who believe in desal — that we were somehow going to turn down any project whether it was a good one or a bad one,” said CCC commissioner Dayna Bochco on the Doheny plant. “And I’m glad now that we can show the other agencies and whoever else is interested in this that we are fully supportive of desal, when it’s a good project.”
Doheny plant approval
While environmental groups tried to stop the plant due to claims of harm to sea life because of the water intake wells and plant runoff, the CCC noted the projects’ ultimate commitment to avoiding sea life harm. Other opposition groups tried to focus on the price of water going up at 20% to $1,479 per acre foot for those who would receive the water. But, once final costs were calculated to only a $2 to $7 a month rise in water costs per household, that point was moot.
Other CCC commissioners and water experts noted that the $140 million plant project wasn’t perfect, but was needed to help bring water to Southern California, to help counter the growing drought in the state, and to help encourage more desalination plants to be built in California in the future.
“We finally have positive news about desalination plant approvals,” said Alonzo Taylor-Morgan, a water control specialist, to the Globe on Friday. “There have been more and more people wanting these plants, and with California as dry as it is, it is needed. I mean, California has the infrastructure in place for water, and local efforts at curtailing use have been successful. But as we’ve seen with the decline in meltwater and rivers being tapped out, we need some new sources, and desalination is key. Hopefully the CCC continues these approvals. We’ve been stunted by them enough recently.”
The Doheny project is expected to be constructed and ready to start producing water by 2027.
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