Water wars: Orange County Water District wants desalinated water; Irvine Ranch doesn’t. Who will win?

Citing potentially higher costs that would be passed on to customers, Orange County’s largest provider of water to homes and businesses is intensifying its opposition to a key supplier’s plan to buy desalinated water from a proposed $1 billion Huntington Beach plant.

Officials at Irvine Ranch Water District, which serves more than 340,000 customers in Irvine, Tustin, Lake Forest and several other cities, are trying to derail the desalination deal struck between the Orange County Water District and Poseidon Resources, the company proposing the plant on coastal land adjacent to Pacific Coast Highway.

Whether Irvine Ranch, essentially a worried customer of OCWD, can stop the county groundwater supplier’s plans to buy 50 million gallons a day of desalinated water remains to be seen. But the unusually public battle playing out in the arcane world of the region’s water agencies shows how contentious the ocean-to-tap water project has become.

OCWD manages a massive aquifer beneath north and central Orange County that accounts for roughly half the county’s water. The agency charges 19 member agencies, including Irvine Ranch, $322 per acre-foot for water pumped from the ground.

John Kennedy, OCWD’s executive director of engineering and water resources, said his agency’s pending pact with Poseidon will increase those costs as much as 53 percent – costs that ultimately will be passed on to ratepayers.

Poseidon’s desalinated water also would be pricier than what OCWD pays Southern California’s regional water wholesaler, Metropolitan Water District, which imports and sells water from Northern California and the Colorado River.

Kennedy said the added desalination cost comes with a valuable benefit: ensuring a steady supply not subject to competition and reallocation involving other water-starved regions of Southern California and beyond.

“There’s no black or white answer here,” he said. “It really boils down to how reliable do you think imported water will be in the future. You’re weighing that uncertainty with the opportunity to create 50 million gallons a day in your backyard.

“It’s more expensive, but it gives you greater certainty and security and insulates you from the imported water issues.”

The district, which traditionally has cycled all of its purchased water into and then out of its underground aquifer, is also considering piping desalinated water directly to its customer agencies. Under that scenario, the price would be the same as what member agencies pay for water they now import from Metropolitan Water District, roughly $940 per acre-foot.

But, according to a tentative contract, OCWD must pay Poseidon considerably more than what Metropolitan charges for water it uses to recharge the aquifer.

And that’s a major sticking point for Irvine Ranch water officials, who buy large amounts of OCWD groundwater.

“The temptation to just throw a hose in the ocean and suck it out and spend all the money at this time when we truly don’t need it would be a big mistake for the region,” said Paul Cook, the general manager at Irvine Ranch.

OCWD also gets much of its groundwater from rain that falls in Orange County or inland and flows down the Santa Ana River. A massive recycling project also treats sewer water, producing 100 million gallons a day of purified water that’s put in the ground. As needed, OCWD buys untreated MWD water at about $600 an acre-foot and puts it into the aquifer.

Under its proposed Poseidon deal, OCWD would buy desalinated water for 20 percent more than Metropolitan charges for its already treated water, now about $940 an acre-foot. That premium difference would gradually drop to zero over 40 years.

Before the OCWD-Poseidon deal can proceed, the groundwater agency must decide where the desalinated water will be used and how it will be distributed.

One option under consideration is to add nearly all of the 50 million gallons a day of the higher-priced water to the county aquifer for later use. A second possibility is to store 15 million gallons in the ground and send the remainder to west Orange County cities like Fountain Valley and Westminster. A third choice is to send 10 million gallons to South County cities, 25 million to other cities and 15 million into the ground.

OCWD – and ultimately its local water agency customers – would cover the cost of building the pipes, pumps and distribution systems that ferry water around O.C., estimated at $97 million to $131 million.

“The cost of distribution has added a sobering reality that this is not going to be a cheap project,” said OCWD board vice president Denis Bilodeau, who supports the project. But he thinks the builder has made significant progress. “Poseidon has something that no one else has. They have a site and they have 13 of the 14 permits required to build a desalination plant,” he said.

South Orange County cities, which have no groundwater aquifer to store and retrieve water, are most supportive of the desalination project.

Roger Butow, founder of the South County environmental group Clean Water Now and an environmental analyst, complains that Irvine Ranch’s attempts to derail the Poseidon project are self-serving and threaten to cut off a potential new source for South County, which imports close to 90 percent of its water.

“They don’t want to take the water? Fine, don’t take it,” Butow said. “We’re really stuck. We don’t have aquifers that are huge like they do. We don’t have hundreds of millions of gallons to spread around.”

But shipping water from the proposed Huntington Beach plant to South County would likely require using a pipeline partly owned by Metropolitan, the water importer, which might be reluctant to allow a water source it doesn’t control into its pipes.

Contact the writer: aorlowski@ocregister.com or Twitter: @aaronorlowski

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