Water Reliability 2020 - desal is alive and well

At the recent SCESC informational meeting I was given a little information on Water Reliability 2020, a program sponsored by the West Basin Water District (a local water wholesaler who probably sells to your water retailer if you live locally, except for Torrance residents).  The intent of the program organizers was to get a written commitment from me to support a three-pronged conservation, reclamation, and desalination plan that West Basin is promoting to reduce our local reliance on imported water.  Once you commit to support this effort they place your name on their website in a scrolling marquee.  Normally I'm in favor of this sort of corporate environmental commitment, but I didn't sign because the program sounded too good to be true, the description was simplistic, it wasn't the main reason I was at the informational session, and the session leader didn't seem extremely conversant with water issues.  So I didn't ask for more information nor did I sign a postcard in support. Instead I went poking around on the web for more information. I didn't find anything that would stop me from supporting the effort, but read below for the details.

West Basin has a goal of replacing 10% of imported water with desalinated water (implying ocean water, but the technology was originally implemented to allow pumping of brackish well water which is where I thought I smelled a rat), reclamation of sewer water (currently an expanding capability that is limited to commercial and industrial uses), and conservation.  All at a cost no greater than they currently pay for imported water and all by year 2020.  This was the soundbite summary that they presented to us when asking for our written support.

More insightful and interesting reasoning other than "West Basin are the good guys, fighting the right environmental fight" is found in their 2011-2012 operating budget. It notes that they were forced to develop a rationing ("Water Shortage Allocation") plan just like their main water supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), who's reason for existence is to import water from northern California. The West Basin rationing plan drove a "significant financial penalty" on their customer agencies (the water retailers that sell to you and me) if they did not reduce consumption.  Presumably the retail water agencies customers squawked at the unfunded mandate, and so there was an impetus to reduce consumption using conservation measures.  By their reports, they have done so successfully and over the long term, not withstanding the recent mandate for conservation:  In response to droughts of the 1980s and 1990s West Basin changed from solely a supplier organization to one that focused on water reliability. They write, "In 1990, West Basin  was approximately 80% dependent on imported water. Today, through appropriate investment in recycling and conservation, West Basin is about two-thirds dependent."  West Basin hopes to be only 33% dependent on imported water by 2020.  I had thought that West Basin used local ground water for the remaining one third currently, but they do not so far as I can tell.  Their other "sources" of water are all reclaimed - from treated sewer water and from ocean water.  They sell the reclaimed water for about the same price as the imported water so I can make this eyeball assessment off of their revenue charts even though actual sales volumes aren't reported in a place I could find.  There is a certain appeal to selling the same water twice and clearly there is a long term unstated goal to sell reclaimed water for use in our drinking water system.  This could be desal water or reclaimed sewer water.  This receives no mention in their financial report most likely due to the public's unease about "toilet to tap" programs and the bad publicity that desal has received.  I could easily see a groundwater injection program utilizing reclaimed water in their future since they currently provide reclaimed water for injection into barrier wells that provide protection against sea water intrusion. I think this is a fine idea.

Underlying the feel good "development of local water sources" and interlinked conservation message is a deep uncertainty about the continued viability of the State water project.  "West Basin is cognizant that the State’s short-term and long-term risks have an impact on its customers."  Meaning that one earthquake could take out water deliveries from northern California for years.  There's also on-going court wrangling that could alter water deliveries.  All this adds to a higher level of uncertainty.

In West Basin's words, "uncertainty regarding a long-term solution to balance water supply reliability and ecosystem restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta means that West Basin must continue to aggressively pursue water supply diversification through conservation and development of locally produced new supplies. Continued expansion of the recycled water system and research and demonstration of ocean-water desalination are among the current opportunities to advance this mission. As a response to water restrictions and an ongoing need to support its infrastructure, the State of California will look to the voters to support a multi-billion Water Bond in the near term."

West Basin fills two of the 37 directors seats on the MWD, so if you have a ship on your shoulder in regards to MWD anti-environmental litigation, then you might be equally irritated with West Basin, though my experience is that 2 of 37 isn't enough to make a significant difference in policies.

So, no smoking guns, and a somewhat deeper understanding of one of our local water suppliers. 

No comments:

Post a Comment