By JEFF THOMAS / President, Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) Board of Directors
There is a misconception that the tap water we use when we brush our teeth, shower, wash our clothes or water our lawns is overpriced. The water delivered directly to our homes and businesses is clean, filtered and is monitored more closely than bottled water, which is about 300 times more expensive than tap water. Tap water costs less than one penny for three gallons. Bottled water costs more than a dollar per gallon. Still, our water bill seems to go only one direction – up. USA Today released a new report that stated water bills in Southern California have increased anywhere from 67 to 141 percent over the past decade. Much of this increase is related to outside rate hikes from imported water sources.Today, Orange County is about 50 percent self-reliant on local water supplies and local water projects while the other half of our water is imported from Northern California or the Colorado River. To protect ourselves from unpredictable rate increases as well as future droughts and natural disasters that could cut off our imported water supply, it is imperative that we develop new local water projects that will make Orange County more self-reliant and less reliant on outside forces that may or may not be able to deliver in a crisis.
One new water project that is in the offing is a proposed seawater desalination facility in Huntington Beach. Built through a public-private partnership, no tax dollars would be at risk in its development and public water districts would only be responsible for purchasing the water if and when it is delivered at the quantity and quality agreed to beforehand.
So far, this project has been more than 10 years in development as it winds its way through the cumbersome permitting process.
Another project is the South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination Project, based in Dana Point, which is undergoing a feasibility analysis. Another new source of drinking water, this project would provide an additional 15 million gallons of drinking water for south Orange County.
Desalinating seawater will cost more than importing water today, but we have a responsibility to look beyond today. We must consider the future price of water and the cost of remaining so heavily reliant on imported water. What is the value of tapping into the world’s largest reservoir – the Pacific Ocean? Keep in mind that a Northern California earthquake that rates 6.7 or higher on the Richter scale would likely destroy the levies in the Delta, which would cut off our drinking water supply from Northern California for up to three years. The value of desalination plants providing 65 million gallons of fresh drinking water every day to Orange County residents and businesses would be incalculable.
Consider that when the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) – Orange County’s internationally acclaimed wastewater recycling program – was originally planned, the cost estimate of purified drinking water from this facility was more than the cost of imported water at the time. Due to technological advancements and efficiencies combined with the increasing cost of imported water, the GWRS water has become cost-competitive with imported water supplies. It is not unreasonable to think that desalinating seawater will follow that same formula. Over the past decade, the cost of desalinated seawater has plummeted as membrane technology improves and energy recovery systems are put in place. Meanwhile the cost of imported water inexorably keeps climbing.
By investing in and supporting local water projects, we can be sure Orange County will become an island of self-reliance in Southern California and that our well will never run dry.
“Desalination must be included in any discussion of future water sources for Orange County."