Forum: Ocean Desalination in Ventura County

By Sheryl Hamlin

Introduction by Supervisor Bennett

Supervisor Steve Bennett hosted a full board room in the County Supervisors chambers on December 1, 2016 when four water experts spoke on their experiences in planning and implementing ocean water desalination.

Supervisor Bennett opened by saying that “water is the most important issue he will be dealing with for the next four years”. The county has no direct role in water decisions, he said, but has a distinct role as a facilitator and coordinator in long term planning especially when considering the 240 individual water agencies in the county.

Other water options in the “conversation” are storm water recapture, recycled water (“showers to flowers”), new connections to the State Water system (City of Ventura), new regulations of groundwater (SGMA) and conservation. All will play a role in the future.

In the audience were three members from the Ojai City Council, 2 members from the Los Angeles Water Board and 5 members from the Casitas Water District.

The panelists included:

  • Joshua Haggmark, Water Manager, City of Santa Barbara
  • Scott Maloni, Vice President, Project Development, Poseidon Water
  • Tom Luster, Senior Coastal Analyst, California Coastal Commission
  • Susan Mulligan, P.E. General Manager, Calleguas Municipal Water Company


The recording of the meeting can be watched here and documents downloaded here.

Full House in Chambers December 1, 2016

Four questions were posed to the panelists: Advantages, Costs, Environmental Impacts and Solutions and How to Plan/Implement with each panelist making an opening statement, followed by commentary from other panelists.

How to Factor Increased Reliability of Ocean Water Desalination into Planning?

Joshua Haggmark took the lead on this topic by sharing a presentation about Santa Barbara’s desalination plant which is due to come on line in 2017 after is multi-million dollar upgrade. He stated that Santa Barbara has 5,000,000 tourists annually and 193,000 customers for which water is essential. In the 1980’s, they used 16,000 AFY (acre feet per year) but have dropped that to 10,000 AFY. There is a small agricultural base, so most water is single-family, multi-family and commercial. In the 1980’s Santa Barbara had three sources of water, now there are seven, but two are through tunnels each with a fault. So, there is a push to diversify the sources of water. The situation is dire and on Tuesday they will ban turf grass watering.


Santa Barbara Water Sources 2016

Ocean desalination in Santa Barbara will provide 30% of the water and will stretch their sources, he said. Without desal, there would be severe rationing. The blended costs are $900 to $1000 per AFY considering all their sources.

Susan Mulligan added that Callegus serves ¾ of the county and ¾ of its supply comes from the State Water system, which has no backup and is subject to an earthquake. Desal improves reliability in an earthquake potentially because it is local.

Scott Maloni from Poseidon said that “desal is a drought proof water supply” and noted a ruling by the State Water Resources Control Board that reduced mandatory conservation in San Diego County due to the drought resistant supply from the Poseidon Plant in Carlsbad. The bigger issue he said is the “antiquated” infrastructure in the state which does not deliver water to where the population sources are located.

Joshua Haggmark pointed out the desalination increases water quality reliability because they have found that when getting down to the bottom of water sources, the water degrades. Desalination also allows users to “dial down” their home water systems because there is less salt in the potable water.

Tom Luster said about desalination: you will have good water when you need it and good water when you don’t need it. He was implying that payments continue when water not used and some plants don’t have on/off switches.

Some downsides to desalination are complexities in design, said Ms. Mulligan, requiring high expertise like Poseidon who has also built in Israel. Redundant supplies are essential. Climate change, said Luster, affect where plants would be located. Tom Luster said that Poseidon is overly engineered positively to prohibit organisms from intruding on their membranes.

Costs: What are factors which cause costs to vary in desalination projects?

Scott Maloni took the lead in this question by saying that the plant in Carlsbad is designed with a 50 year life, but they are upgrading. There is a $1 buyout to the agency at the end of 30 years. Carlsbad is the largest seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere and the first in California. The $922,000,000 capital investment was all privately financed and delivered on-time and on-budget. The project is a Public-Private-Partnership (P3). The 5.5 acre 50 MGD project is not visible from I5 and screened from the Pacific Coast Highway.

San Diego users pay about $4.71 per month more for water due to the new Poseidon plant.


Carlsbad/Poseidon Desalination Overview: Source Poseidon

Costs are the big inhibitor to desalination. RO (Reverse Osmosis) technology has improved over 20 years. The membranes in Carlsbad have improved since the start of the project. Energy Recovery Devices have evolved which essentially recirculate the energy, thus saving 50% of the energy. As costs improve, the cost curve decreases over time. The costs are fixed over 30 years to Poseidon’s customers. Water Authority has agreed to purchase 48,000 AFY for the life of the contract, but can buy more if needed up to 56,000 AFY. The net is about $2400 per AFY from this plant, but these costs are very site specific, so two plants may be very different. Water Agency’s bond rating was improved due to decrease in net present value of costs per S&P.

carlsbad_settingJoshua Haggamark, whose project is much smaller than the Carlsbad project, said that they are looking at renewable energy, particularly methane from the waste water treatment plant to produce power for the desalination plant. Susan Mulligan said that the planned use of renewable supplies was essential in the permitting process. Scott Maloni reminded that RO does not result in emissions, so there is no difference in a building that uses solar and emphasized that California needs regulatory reform that would allow them to buy all excess solar energy, which is not now possible. Susan Mulligan said the a potential plant in Calleguas would be as big or bigger than the Carlsbad with the same lift but twice the distance of piping and powering the water so they are looking at $3000/AFY.

Permitting and Environmental Impacts

Tom Luster of the California Coastal Commission took the lead on this discussion item. He talked about “easy” versus “difficult” desalination projects. He said that looking for opportunities through the Urban Water Management plans of SGMA provides an opportunity. He felt that desalination would never be more than “a niche market” in California due to uphill pumping costs. The Coastal Act policies, which are similar to power plants, affect the permitting of desalination plants. Also there is the Desalination Amendment Policy which covers the loss of marine life. There are also issues of sea level rise and coastal erosion which affect coastal power plants too.

The two issues cited are “entrainment” and “impingement”. The definitions are: Impingement is the entrapment of larger organisms against the screen mesh by the flow of the withdrawn water. Entrainment is the passage of smaller organisms through the screening mesh. Source

Options for Ventura County might be Ormond Beach, but not concurrently with the power plant. Ventura could benefit from a site with seawater intrusion because brackish water is cheaper to treat than pure seawater. He suggests small to moderate facilities for local area with minimal or no pump-up. One such example is the Sand City plant which produces 300 AFY and only took three months to be permitted with NO lawsuits.

Tom Luster pointed out that improvements in RO have slowed, so there must be a new technology to accelerate the cost improvements. One penny cost savings in electricity can drop water costs by $50. Intake methods also make a difference in costs.

Steps to bring a desalination project on-line

Susan Mulligan took the lead on this and discussed their planning process which was a two year process completed in 2015. Steps include: identifying alternatives, identify partners, define governing structure, involve the community, select an implementation process, determine type of intake, look for siting, permitting, and construction. She had a slide on each of these items with details.


Supervisor Bennett closed the intense, two hour session indicating that this was just a beginning of the dialogue.

WATCH meeting here.

Video here about California desalination from PBS. Carlsbad and Santa Barbara featured.

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Yes. $922,000,000 investment. Typo. Thanks.

Steven Nash

There is no way a desal is going in at Ormond, end of discussion. The water customers who need it can build it on their own bit of land, not Oxnard’s. We have been ahead of the curve with our Advanced Water Purification Facility. We will not help other cities with their water crisis unless they are willing to pay full freight plus a tidy profit for our AWPF water. As per Ms. Mulligan, we could charge as much as $3K/AF for AWPF water that is produced for around $1400/AF.

BTW, the Carlsbad plant had to have been substantially more than the $922,000 figure cited.

I will watch the full proceedings later but my initial impression is that the local water lords are just not that interested in truly regional solutions.