Ocean desalination coming to Ventura County?

By George Miller

Would you believe that a letter of intent was just signed between The Channel Islands Beach Community Services District (CIBCSD) and a small company named Blue Dolphin Environmental Resources, for the latter to build and operate a 5 million gallon per day (15.5 acre feet) local ocean water desalination plant for CIBCSD? Would you believe that it would be in Channel Islands Harbor? Would you further believe that it would be a floating plant– on a barge? All of this is true.


Architect’s conceptual rendering of one of several possible desalination barge configurations. Source: Blue Dolphin Environmental

In the 4th year of a record-breaking drought, residents and officials are getting nervous about whether water supplies will be adequate to sustain a state population of about 40 million residents. Plans in the state to increase water supplies or even better allocate existing ones, seem inadequate. So, reliance has mostly been on conservation, which has significant, but limited potential. The bulk of California’s water comes from snowmelt from CA mountains, the Colorado River (which CA will be getting less of) and rainwater/groundwater. Locally, groundwater is subject to additional saltwater intrusion due to the drought and heavy water reserves drawdown.


Source: Blue Dolphin Environmental

Some desalination projects have taken a decade or more to secure approval and get built. Since such plants have been done before and since Governor Brown declared a drought emergency and vowed to help cut red tape for projects to address it, Blue Dolphin believes it can be done much faster this time.


Who’s behind it?

Along came Stan Moorman, a local entrepreneurial architect- a longtime fixture in Oxnard. Old-timers may remember him as the guy who proposed a new downtown facelift, a sports stadium and even bid on taking over the old Channel Islands Harbor Lobster Trap Restaurant and Casa Sirena Hotel to redevelop them. None of those projects got off the ground. But in the meantime, dozens of local projects had his name all over the plans, applications and project documents. Most recently he was working on establishing a fleet of charter sailboats built to his specifications. But when he realized the potential of this project, which has numerous potential customers in multiple countries, some already in discussion, he shifted focus. Moorman also has partners in Blue Dolphin. For this article, we also interviewed CEO and company spokesman Charles Grethel (805-407-4265, [email protected]), a steam engineer who operates a plant for a major pharmaceutical company and Chief Legal Counsel Jeffrey Stinnett.

Like most of us, Moorman heard about the drought and worried about California’s future. But he knew about reverse osmosis desalinization, a proven, reliable membrane filtration process. R/O has been around a long time, is used extensively, but was very expensive compared to natural water sources- rivers, groundwater, snowmelt. But, with imported water now costing about $1100 per acre foot and possibly rising above $1500-$1800 in the next 5 years, R/O can now be competitive and much more importantly, available in large quantities. Blue Dolphin believes it can desalinate water for much less than that.

All of this could be done without public money and little public risk, the principals say.  But, it is conceivable that an agency might want to purchase a stake in the project or provide grants to move it along, since water supply is a major public priority.


CIBCSD’s commitment to Blue Dolphin

Blue Dolphin executives were in negotiations with key CIBCSD personnel and consultants for months to reach an agreement.  As CIBCSD head Jared Bouchard related to CitizensJournal.us, confirmed by the letter’s text, the letter of intent is not a firm commitment to do business, but just a willingness to consider it.

Bouchard likes the idea and approach of the plant, likes it that local entrepreneurs would do it, but is also aware of all the hurdles they must clear to get it approved and done. He says CIBCSD is quite willing to talk doing business with Blue Dolphin, if they can get that all done as they said they can.

Relevant excerpts:

“The District is willing to consider, on a case-by case basis, specific requests by Blue Dolphin for District cooperation and assistance in developing the facility. Whether the District grants or rejects a given request shall be in the sole and absolute discretion of the District Board of Directors.”

“Subject to the ‘Disclaimer of Agreement’ below, the District would consider purchasing desalinated water from a Facility constructed by Blue Dolphin. Should the District Board of Directors approve that purchase, the purchase would be in accordance with terms and conditions set forth in a final, Channel Islands\ Blue Dolphin Letter of Intent (Final) 1 Member of: Association of.California Water Agencies . ACWA Joint Powers Insurance Authority • Association of Water Agencies of Ventura County California and Ventura County Special Districts Association • Ventura Regional Sanitation District definitive and formal agreement to be prepared without missing terms, authorized by appropriate directors, shareholders or members, duly executed and delivered (‘Definitive Agreement’).”

Since CIBCSD only uses about a half million gallons per day (GPD), the 4.5 million GPD excess would be sold to other districts, using this district as the intermediary.

BB Riverboat2

One of the possible Blue Dolphin barge exterior configurations looks similar to this.


water intakes would be about 1500 feet offshore. Source: Blue Dolphin Environmental

The Plant

The barge-based multiple unit desalination plant would use long-proven reverse osmosis membrane filtration and locally available electric power, with a diesel electric backup system. Pipes would be laid  to water intakes about 1500 feet offshore, south of the harbor breakwater. Return of effluent would be farther offshore. A kelp reforestation project would be done in the area (see diagram below). Desalinated/purified water product would be piped to nearby local storage and blending facilities. We were told that the output would be “too pure” and would need to be blended with other higher mineral content water.

Why a barge?  Several reasons: it is actually easier to get approval for such a waterborne project than on land, it can be built offsite and just towed in for installation and it could be swapped out with other barges for overhaul, repair or upgrade. It would be a completely self-contained unit, needing only raw seawater, electric  power, manpower and supplies as needed.



Blue Dolphin proposes putting a theme restaurant on the upper deck, with sweeping harbor views.


The restaurant roof deck could look something like this.


Where Would the Desalination Plant Be?

Blue Dolphin has scoped out several locations in Channel islands Harbor, from Kiddie Beach, and up both sides of the main channel. The site probably most acceptable would be at the ramp north of the Coast Guard station and south of the boatyard, on Victoria Avenue (site plan “D” shown below).




Consultant’s Review

KEH Consultants reviewed the project and design back in April and came up with some mechanical and regulatory shortcomings, according to the report we saw. We are told those have since been resolved. They also laid out a list of regulatory.approval hurdles (next section, below) that would have to be cleared to keep the project moving ahead. State Assembly Member Jacqui Irwin- Thousand Oaks has also taken an interest in the project and helped out, looking into regulatory requirements and receptivity of officials to such a project.

The consultant also calculated that Blue Dolphin’s cost estimates are on the low side. However, the projected return on investment leaves room for that and the spiraling cost of imported water keeps it cost-effective.


Approvals Required:

Getting this through the required approvals might prove to be even more difficult than building, installing and deploying it.

Blue Dolphin Environmental Systems (BDES) personnel allowed me to look over some project documents which covered multiple agencies required to clear such a project, including:

From the consultant’s analysis: Although the barge system may avoid certain permitting requirements, it is not clear that all are avoided. These permits may require specific technical studies and public review and approval. These activities impact both cost and schedule which should be addressed by BDES. A partial list of permits, expected to be required, is provided below for consideration by BDES:

a) U.S. Army Corps of Engineering – Section 404 permit is required for any discharge
into “water of the United States”.
b) US Fish and Wildlife Service – required as part of federal consultation for
Endangered Species Act (ESA) Compliance.
c) California Coastal Commission – For California Coast Act compliance, a State
Coastal Development Permit is required for the ocean outfall and intake
structures. Key issues for compliance include concentrate water quality,
impingement/entrainment at intake, growth, greenhouse gas emissions, coastal
access/view and alternatives.
d) California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – This project does not appear to be
exempt from CEQA. Appropriate documentation would include Environmental
Impact Report. Key issues are expected to be brine discharge quality and impacts
on marine resources.
e) California Regional Water Quality Control Board – National Pollutant Discharge
Elimination Systems Permit (NPDES) is required. Key issues will be brine discharge
quality and impacts on ambient conditions.
f) California State Lands Commission – A Land Use Lease may be required for
intake/outfall pipelines.
g) Division of Drinking Water – A Domestic Water Supply Permit is required for
potable use of the permeate water.

Additional notes by Blue Dolphin:

– California Ocean Protection Council, State Lands (For CEQA approval)

– State Water Board – Division of Drinking Water and Regional Water Quality Control Board

– U.S. Maritime Administration, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and U.S. Coast Guard, share Project Jurisdiction regarding Anchorage(s) and Offshore Coastal Construction within state harbors and navigable waterways.

– Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Cal EPA, AQMD and State Energy Commission


On to Mexico

Blue Dolphin is also in discussions for multiple projects in Mexico, which has an even greater need for water in some regions and a simpler path to project approvals.

Excerpt from a Blue Dolphin proposal:

In light of Baja California’s declared Water Emergency utilizing currently available Ocean Desalinization technologies beginning in Ensenada BC, can provide between 7 and 28 Giga-Liters of fresh water annually while simultaneously restoring and protecting the states vital Kelp Forests and Marine Fisheries habitats. Utilizing clean efficient gas turbine – electric, multi-unit Reverse Osmosis technologies, Blue Dolphin Environmental Resources assembles. A fleet of floating Desalinization Barges built in Mexico, with each unit capable of providing 20 Mega-Liters of potable water daily. Mechanically identical barges is assembled in Ensenada Harbor Shipyard is than positioned inside one of numerous harbors and ports, providing continuous flows of freshwater along the county’s coast; barges are pile set near existing onshore water power and other infrastructures. Restored kelp forests buffers are designed to minimize potential impacts on marine life near “subsurface” intakes; 100 minimum acre kelp forest habitats naturally draw marine organisms and small fish away from potentially hazardous intake wells and distant discharge manifolds.


Another possible design for the Blue Dolphin desalination barge. Source: Blue Dolphin Environmental


So, here is what looks like a good idea to help address increasing California water shortages, brought about by an arid climate, record droughts, poor government foresight in planning and questionable allocation of existing supplies. We’ll see how serious government is about addressing it now and how well Blue Dolphin can surmount technical, regulatory, management and political hurdles.  The company is now looking to wrap up financing for phase I, which consists of engineering design, permits and required studies. Consulting expertise is lined up to help them through these steps.



George Miller is Publisher of Citizensjournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant, active in civic affairs, living in Oxnard.

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