Nick Cahill, Courthousnews
ANTIOCH, Calif. (CN) — Founded on a lush plain of the largest estuary on the West Coast of North America shortly after gold was discovered, Antioch’s fortunes have always risen and fallen with the delta tides.
One of California’s oldest settlements, what started as a ranch town morphed decades ago into an industrial city due to its riverside locale and proximity to San Francisco. Family farms gave way to coal and copper mines, mills and warehouses took over downtown and the city steadily grew into one of the Bay Area’s largest.
The city’s official motto, “Opportunity Lives Here,” hints at the myriad industries that have come and gone since the Gold Rush, but its fate remains undeniably tied to the San Joaquin River. The river, the state’s second largest and one of the most heavily dammed in the West, is the main source of water for over 110,000 Antioch residents.
But for over 50 years the lower stages of the river and the encompassing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have been inundated with salt caused by state and federal water projects, increased agricultural runoff, drought and sea level rise.
The mounting challenges have rendered the city’s claim useless for large stretches of the year, especially during California’s increasingly common droughts.
To regain access to its most vital resource and prepare for climate change, Antioch is attempting to control its water destiny by building the delta’s first desalination plant.
“We saw what was coming with the environment,” said John Samuelson, Antioch’s city engineer. “This is about protecting our water rights.”
Antioch’s pre-1914 water rights give it nearly unfettered ability to pump from the San Joaquin, but the value of the privilege continues to be watered down.
The problem for Antioch isn’t water availability — it’s water quality.
Prior to the construction of major 20th century dams such as Shasta, Friant and Oroville, salty or brackish water was rarely an issue for most farmers and towns in the delta. Even in dry years, water from the five rivers — including the San Joaquin — that flow into the delta were able to slow the daily saltwater tides and “rinse or freshen” out the estuary.
The sprawling inland estuary is formed by the confluence of two primary rivers — the Sacramento from the north and the San Joaquin from the southeast. The rivers eventually join near Antioch before flowing through the Carquinez Strait to the San Francisco Bay.
The main cause of Antioch’s water woes are the Central Valley and State Water projects. The mammoth projects, jointly operated by the feds and state, pull enormous amounts of water from pumps in the south delta where salinity isn’t a major concern.
Though delta plumbing projects provide 25 million residents with drinking water and irrigate over 3 million acres of farmland, they greatly reduce the amount of freshwater left for the fish, birds and cities like Antioch that rely on the estuary to survive.
When the pumps are humming and delivering water to farmers and cities south of the delta, San Joaquin River flows are weakened and less fresh water makes it downstream to Antioch. The pumping allows saltwater to creep further into the delta and tarnish water quality, a problem that is exacerbated during the state’s notorious dry spells.
The feds and state are required to abide by pumping rules intended to ensure there is an adequate amount of freshwater circulating through the delta at all times. But critics say the guidelines are broken routinely and aren’t strict enough to protect the struggling ecosystem and its endangered salmon populations.
To account for the adverse impacts caused by the State Water Project, California in the 1960s agreed to help Antioch pay for water when the delta became too salty for its water treatment plant. Over the years the city’s substitute purchases from Contra Costa Water District became more frequent and a burden on taxpayers.
Fed up with the nearly 50-year-old arrangement, the city sued the state in 2017 claiming it was spending far too much money buying water from outside sources. The lawsuit also argued the salinity problems would intensify in the future if the state ever builds the much ballyhooed Delta Tunnels project, which at the time was on the cusp of breaking ground. The project has since been scrapped but current Governor Gavin Newsom is moving ahead with a scaled-down version.
The legal battle concluded last year when the city and California Department of Water Resources settled for $27 million. In essence, the settlement absolved the state of fault but provided the financial footing needed to kickstart Antioch’s desalination plant.
Now with California gripped again by drought and water suppliers being forced to enact conservation mandates in other parts of the state, Antioch is readying its defenses.
Giving a tour of the construction site on a suffocatingly hot and smoky summer morning, Samuelson, the city engineer, rattled off the list of perceived project benefits.
Rather than building a whole new facility, the city is essentially giving its existing water treatment plant a makeover and equipping it with desalination capabilities. The project will use the existing raw water pipeline that pulls water from the river to the plant and send it through the normal pretreatment process.
To remove salts and minerals from the brackish water, the city will employ a process known as reverse osmosis. Once the water is scrubbed through the reverse osmosis membranes, the excess brine will be diluted to meet discharge standards and piped 4.3 miles away downstream to the Delta Diablo Wastewater Treatment Plant for disposal. Once the desalination plant is operable, it will be able to clean 6 million gallons per day or 5,500 acre-feet per year.
According to the Water Education Foundation, the average California household uses between one-half and one acre-foot of water annually.
Like any water infrastructure project built in California, the desalination plant carries an eye-opening price tag.
At a cost of at least $110 million, the plant will go down as the most expensive public works project in city history. The city says funding will come through a variety of sources including the court settlement and state grants. After years of planning and environmental review, the city broke ground on the historic project in early 2020 and hopes to have it completed sometime in 2023.
Desalination will allow the city to pull from the river year-round even during droughts and save residents money in the end, Samuelson claims.
“This project is huge, especially in a dry year like this,” Samuelson said. “There will be no water rate increases, it should actually save money.”
Samuelson says the project is notable for various reasons, as the first inland brackish desalination project in California and because it’s faced relatively little opposition. He says the state wants to use the project as an example going forward.
The Department of Water Resources confirmed Samuelson’s claim in an email.
“DWR is proud to support the city of Antioch brackish water desalination project through the Water Desalination Grant Program,” said Kris Tjernell, deputy director of integrated watershed management. “As dry conditions continue, it’s critical that the state invests in projects that strengthen California’s drought resilience.”
There are over 10 desalination plants already operating in the state, but they are all located on and pull directly from the Pacific Ocean. Samuelson says Antioch’s inland version to clean brackish water is the first-of-its-kind.
While the city casts the project as environmentally friendly and has promised to strictly monitor downstream discharges to ensure they aren’t too salty, not all are convinced desalination is a win for the already struggling delta ecosystem.
San Francisco Baykeeper, a group committed to improving water quality standards in the Bay-Delta, said in an email while it doesn’t officially oppose the project, it will be closely watching to make sure water quality doesn’t suffer downstream from the plant.
“They say the brine discharges will have the exact same level of pollutants that were in the water in the first place, but Baykeeper’s concern is that the pollutants will be more concentrated,” said Eric Buescher, SF Baykeeper attorney. “Antioch and the State Water Resources Control Board will need to keep a close eye on the brine discharges and their effects on the bay to make sure the city’s assumptions were correct.”
Buescher added that instead of funding desalination, the state should be focusing taxpayer dollars on propping conservation efforts and new water recycling endeavors.
“Desalination is also extremely energy intensive, while water recycling uses less energy and can remove pollutants from wastewater that would otherwise contaminate the bay,” Buescher said.
Other water experts aren’t as concerned about the desalination plant, including Greg Gartrell, adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center and former assistant general manager at the Contra Costa Water District.
Gartrell says the city’s plan to mix or dilute the brine before dumping it back into the river should prove effective.
“The only thing that could arise is if the discharge is very much saltier than the water at the discharge point, the brine will sink and could affect benthic communities locally, but this is not likely if it is done as planned. Overall water quality should not change noticeably,” Gartrell said.
Like SF Baykeeper, Gartrell said the desalination plant shouldn’t be viewed as a silver bullet for the state’s water crisis but rather an expensive crutch for the city.
“It really does not change the water supply overall: just whose water right is being used, Antioch’s or Contra Costa Water District’s,” he said.
Considering climate scientists are predicting more frequent droughts and the delta’s salt problems are far from fixed, Samuelson hopes Antioch’s delta neighbors are paying attention.
“There’s going to be more cities looking at desalination,” he projected.
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