He was developing technology at the time and the city hoped it would provide a stable source of drinking water on an island 23 miles off the southern California coast with few other options.
“I don’t know what we would have done without desalination,” said Avalon Mayor Anni Marshall, who has lived here for 38 years. “It was a big help to us.”
Today, Catalina has two desalination plants that extract salt from seawater, providing up to 230,400 gallons per day, or about 40% of the island’s drinking water.
While desalination has been a critical tool for water security, officials said the island will have to make tough choices as levels in its reservoirs continue to fall in the face of worsening drought conditions due to climate change. This summer will likely be the driest on record in California.
In a solution, Southern California Edison, which built the desalination plants and operates water, electric and gas utilities on the island, plans to add a third well for the plants for 201,600 gallons of water. extra water per day. This would total 432,000 gallons per day and provide over 56% of the island’s drinking water.
Brian Leventhal, spokesman for Southern California Edison, said the plan would avoid future water rationing.
“As recently as 2014-2017, Catalina customers faced severe water rationing due to persistent drought conditions,” he said. “Adding a third well will mean customers won’t have to ration as much.”
Desalination technology has been around for decades but remains controversial due to high costs and environmental impact. This month, the California Coastal Commission killed a longstanding proposal by Poseidon Water to build a $1.4 billion desalination plant in Huntington Beach, noting concerns about energy use and location in an earthquake fault zone.
The proposed plant, which would have produced 50 million gallons of water a day, was backed by Governor Gavin Newsom, but faced fierce opposition from environmental groups concerned about marine life. The desalination process releases a heavy brine solution which is returned to the sea and has the potential to kill marine organisms and disrupt the coastal food chain.
While Poseidon called the commission staff’s report a “knell” for desalination, other planned projects, including one at Doheny State Park in Dana Point, are moving forward. The The Doheny project would use sloping wells that draw water from under the ocean floor to better protect marine life.
The proposed third well on Catalina will also require Coastal Commission approval, but the plan to add an additional 201,600 gallons of water per day has a much smaller footprint compared to other desalination facilities. California Coastal Commission spokesman Noaki Schwartz said the agency is still waiting to receive Edison’s final proposal.
The largest desalination plant in the country is the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which produces an average of 50 million gallons per day. The Meyer desalination plant in Santa Barbara produces three million gallons per day, for about 30% of the city’s demand.
Even Long Beach at one point considered as desalination. For four years beginning in 2005, the city, as part of a research project, operated a 300,000 gallon per day plant at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s Haynes Generating Station at East Long Beach. The project was ultimately deemed too expensive and the factory was closed.
Catalina added its second desalination facility at the Pebbly Beach Power Plant just west of Avalon in 2016 in response to increasing drought conditions. And by then, the technology had greatly improved from the original factory built 30 years ago.
Leventhal said the second factory is roughly half size and uses 30% less energy at produce the same amount some water. The The third well would extend about 70 feet offshore and siphon water from beneath the ocean floor about 70 feet below the surface. Leventhal said it would allow both facilities to operate at higher capacity.
The project would be funded by a $12.3 million grant from the California Department of Water Resources.
Southern California Edison is known as the region’s largest electric company, but it also operates Catalina’s water service under a unique arrangement struck in 1962 when the island was struggling to find a supplier. .
Catalina’s main source of water for its approximately 4,000 residents is groundwater, supplied by pipelines, reservoirs and wells. The Middle Ranch Reservoirwhich serves as the main gauge for water supply, has seen dramatically fluctuating levels in recent years as drought conditions persist.
During a severe drought in the fall of 2016, reservoir levels dropped to less than 20% of their capacity (about 121 acre feet) for the lowest on record, leading to major water rationing . Water levels recovered with a wet winter in 2019, but levels are dropping again with little rain this season.
As of May 12, the reservoir was 629.27 acre feet, or about 60% capacity, compared to about 82% capacity last year at this time. Edison issues mandatory water conservation measures whenever the reservoir drops below 600 acre feet.
Marshall, the mayor of Avalon, said she expects to see warrants as early as next month. However, water conservation is a way of life on the island and most people have retained conservation habits from the great drought of 2016, when they were forced to cut their water usage by 40 %, she said.
“Luckily, a lot of those habits are still there,” she said.
Among conservation efforts, Avalon uses salt water in its restrooms, and many restaurants use plastic utensils and bottled water. Though that creates its own problems because the island’s landfill is about seven years out of capacity, Marshall said, adding that city leaders are considering other waste solutions.
On a recent sunny Wednesday in Avalon, the town was teeming with visitors from a cruise ship parked offshore. The city sees around 700,000 visitors a year and business owners said tourism has rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels. And while it’s good for the local economy, it also means more water consumption.
In recent years, the city has replaced lawns with fake grass and installed Astroturf on sports fields. A decorative water fountain in the city center is filled with mostly dead vegetation.
Yolanda Say, manager of the Metropole Hotel, said the hotel, in the worst drought years, would ship its laundry to the mainland to save water. She said they might consider this measure again.
Say said the hotel in some rooms has removed tubs and installed water-saving showerheads. The hotel also has small signs in each room reminding guests to conserve water and encouraging them to reuse towels.
“The little things add up,” she said.
Catalina residents this year could also see significant hikes in their monthly water bills. In 2020, Edison filed an application with the California Public Utilities Commission for a general rate increase to offset growing operating expenses and drought-related costs.
The rate change, which is pending approval, could make the the average monthly water bill goes from $72.45 to $101.48.
For Rosa Miller, who owns a children’s clothing store in Avalon and has lived on the island since she was 7, water conservation is all the more urgent as the region experiences persistent drought conditions.
To conserve, she keeps a bucket in her shower and then uses the excess water for her plants.
“Water has always been a problem for us,” she said. “We’ve been through this before, and hopefully we can survive it again.”
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