South Orange County’s Water Woes - Residents Weep!

  • Posted on 2 March 2022
  • By Penny Elia, Sierra Club member
Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
While the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner tells of the misfortunes of a seaman and suggests that despite being surrounded by something, you cannot benefit from it, the tale of ocean desalination suggests the same.  The South Coast Water District’s proposed Doheny Ocean Desalination Plant in South Orange County is an excellent example of this conundrum.
Every day in the district that South Coast Water District services (Dana Point, South Laguna, and areas of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano), there are millions of gallons of potable water, aka gold, flowing down the gutters into storm drains or puddling at intersections.  One will also see the water district’s service vehicles splashing through these large puddles in the intersections, but interestingly enough, they never slow down to look at where the water is flowing from or do any type of investigation into this chronic runoff that occurs 24/7/365 in their district.  Furthermore, little is done to truly educate customers on water conservation because after all, it’s their right to use and/or waste as much water as they wish since they are paying for it.
Here is a small example of total potable water waste
The above photo was taken recently during a 35 – 40 mph Santa Ana wind condition during a heat spell.  Multiply this by the hundreds of South Coast Water District customers that feel it’s their right to waste water and run it as long as they want until it flows down the street.  Do they even know that water supplies are scarce or do they see everyone else doing this and just take it for granted that we are surrounded by water?  While the water district claims to have special metering available to them to monitor this type of waste, one has to think that perhaps it’s just too lucrative to put a stop to this wanton waste – why look at the data on the meters?
However, even with all of this highly visible potable water surrounding these communities on one green lawn after another, South Coast Water District advises its customer base that there isn’t going to be a “drop to drink” unless they pursue building, at great cost, a very expensive ocean desalination plant.  The scarcity of water cannot be argued, but what can be argued is why, with all the potable water that is allowed to run down the district’s streets and into the storm drains, we need an ocean desalination plant.  Apparently, the concept of conservation has completely escaped South Coast Water District and its board of directors, and has escaped them for several decades.  We know this because we have been watching and have been begging for solutions for decades.  We have sought assistance from the cities’ water quality departments, the Regional Board and the EPA, but simply put, South Coast Water District doesn't accept responsibility for monitoring their customers' waste of potable water.
South Coast Water District repeatedly advises in their presentations and board meetings that they have made substantial investments in conservation, recycled water, and groundwater recovery.  However, they currently rely on 85 to 100 percent of their water supply from imported sources.  Numerous studies conclude that as much as 50% of water demand can be met with local recycled water which would decrease the reliance on imported sources.  Combine that with conservation and wouldn’t the problem be solved?  Why are the simple solutions ignored?  Could it be that the simple solutions just aren’t profitable enough?
As proposed, the project will increase the salinity of discharge and wastewater volumes on regulated coastal receiving waters frequented by migrating whales as well as dolphins and other marine life.  Increased discharges from the San Juan Ocean Outfall (SJOO) will expand the wastefield plume to degrade larger areas and represent “back-sliding” as it relates to the NPDES Permit.  This begs the question:  Will the proposed Doheny project create toxic offshore brine pools where whales migrate? These deadly brine pools exist elsewhere in our oceans and because this salty “brine” is much denser than regular seawater, it doesn’t mix with the rest of the ocean but rather pools on the seafloor in lakes and sometimes even rivers.
This cetacean mapping graphic depicts the project’s relation to the brine water discharges and federally protected marine life as well as potential migration of the Doheny Project's wastefield plume into South Laguna coastal waters.
Mapping courtesy of Lei Lani Stelle, Ph.D., Professor, Chair of Department of Biology, University of Redlands
A more suitable alternative could be to dry the effluent and export to some off-site location where, chemically inert, it could do little harm. Camp Pendleton in San Clemente, for example, uses solar ponds to dewater brine water.
It appears if we are contaminating the ocean in the vicinity of the intake with the sewage effluent from San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and Laguna Beach, then we are harvesting polluted water to remove not only the contaminants of that effluent including viruses and pharmaceuticals, but also the additional salts and naturally occurring chemicals, that make the ocean water undrinkable. Whereas the recycled water from Aliso Canyon, as an example, has many fewer contaminants to remove because it is much purer than the effluent they are presently discharging. The prohibition about not implementing toilet to tap is not satisfied in this ocean desal proposal because with all the discharges, the ocean becomes only a conduit for transmitting the toilet effluent back into the domestic water system.
These are just a few of the challenges with this proposed project, but the unknown impacts are too numerous to list.  With this in mind, let’s look at a few alternatives. 
Number one, of course, is No Project. 
Enhanced Conservation is at the top of the list. 
Following immediately behind conservation is Enhanced Recycled Water.
As a nearly 40-year resident of South Laguna, I must comment on customer and ratepayer inclusion which is completely lacking for those of us living in South Laguna because we don’t have a vote and haven’t had a vote or voice for several decades.  There are so many risks involved with a project of this size taken on by a small water district, but the customers in South Laguna must go along for the ride - - no matter what the risks – no matter what the cost.  This is truly the definition of “taxation without representation.” 
While many may be able to find a thin thread to grasp in support of this desal project, stating that, “it isn’t as bad as fill in the blank,” there is absolutely no reason to support ocean desalination when the water purveyors have not begun to “tap” into the alternatives that are available to them.  It’s time to put greed and profit aside and think about what’s best for our planet and Mother Ocean.  Put an end to the proposed Doheny ocean desalination project– NOW!
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Great article. The Mouton Niguel Water District at least is encouraging its end users to tear out water guzzling lawns and plants, and reimbursing them with its turf program. Unfortunately, the quality of its water is still unhealthful, containing many dangerous and toxic to the human body chemicals. Desalination plants will only make its water more toxic to us.

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