Drought-Dry Island Looks to Ocean for More Drinking Water | NBC Southern California
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Coverage of California's historic dry spell, one of the most severe droughts on record

Drought-Dry Island Looks to Ocean for More Drinking Water

New desalination plant will enable Catalina Island to avert pending water cuts.



    (Published Monday, Nov. 30, 2015)

    A newly installed desalination plant, removing salts from seawater, will enable the tourist destination of Catalina Island to avoid pending additional drought cutbacks, according to the Southern California Edison Company, the agency that delivers the island's water.

    Unveiled Monday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony and due to go online next week, the plant was put together in less than five months on an urgent basis as an alternative to doubling the required conservation level from 25 to 50 percent.

    At the current level of conservation, households are limited to 30 gallons a day, and businesses also face limits so strict that hotels are sending their laundry to the mainland, and many restaurants have stopped serving tap water in favor of selling bottled water customers drink straight from the recyclable plastic, to reduce dishwashing needs.

    "We had to do something," said Anni Marshall, mayor of Avalon, the only city on the island 26 miles off the California coast. "Oh my gosh, we would have had to turn people away, I believe."

    The new desalination unit is an addition to the facility that first went into operation in response to a previous drought nearly a quarter century ago, when Avalon became one of the first California cities to use desalination to supply a portion of its drinking water.

    Catalina has relied on a mix of desalinated water with less expensive wellwater. During the drought of the past four years, the island's main reservoir has dropped to less than a fifth of capacity, according to Greg Ferree, Edison's vice-president for distribution.

    The dropping reservoir is nearing the level when the increased conservation would have been required under long-standing guidelines. Edison got permission from the California Public Utilities Commission to waive that requirement in light of the new desalination capacity.

    "We are just happy to be able in a very short order to respond to a pretty dramatic situation in terms of the drought here," Ferree said. The original desalination plant can produce 200,000 gallons of water a day. The new unit adds an additional 125,000 gallons of capacity.

    On winter days, Catalina often uses no more than 200,000 gallons, but demand skyrockets during the summer tourist season to as much as 800,000 gallons a day, Ferree said.

    Avalon has a year-round population of only 4,000, but the island receives an estimated 700,000 visitors every year. During the past year, Catalina has been able to reduce its water usage more than required, 38 percent, despite an 18 percent increase in visitors, Mayor Marshall said.

    Catalina residents have not forsaken hope that El Niño conditions will bring a wetter than usual winter, and rollback much of the drought's impact. But need is seen to lessen the island's long-term reliance on wellwater.

    "This is a desert island and will always be subject to drought," said Ferree. "Having this desalination ... is prudent and wise."

    The new desalination unit is designed to treat the brine produced by the original desalination unit. Doing so simplified the permitting process and enabled the new unit to be brought online more quickly, said Ferree.

    Edison intends to seek the necessary permits so that the new plant will also directly draw seawater, which will increase its capacity to around 200,000 gallons a day, said Ron Hite, Edison's district manager for Catalina Island.

    The new unit cost $3 million, $500,000 of which was covered by the city of Avalon. The project is seeking additional funds from the County of Los Angeles and possibly a grant in order to reduce the financial load that will otherwise have to be borne by Catalina's 2,000 ratepayers.

    Shopkeepers say paying a little more for water is preferable to further water restrictions. "It's the cost of doing business over here, of living in paradise," said Steve Bray, owner of Steve's Steakhouse and Maggie's Blue Rose.

    At this point, Edison cannot say whether it will seek a rate increase to cover its portion of the capital cost, and also the additional cost of operating it. The desalination process is electricity intensive. Every gallon of water from the new unit will cost about three times more to deliver than a gallon pumped from one of the island's wells, Hite said.

    Catalina Island ordinarily receives even less rain than the Los Angeles basin, and has no access to the aqueducts from northern California and the Colorado River that augment the water supplies available to most of the rest of Southern California. The island historically feels the pressure of drought sooner and more severely than the mainland.

    On the mainland, desalination is less common than using recycle water to recharge groundwater supplies. Decades ago, Avalon took a different approach to recycling, equipping homes and businesses with a separate plumbing system to deliver ocean water for flushing toilets. Avalon officials are now looking at upgrading the city's sewage treatment plant to recycle it, said Oley Olsen, a member of the city council and mayor pro tem.

    Given the current state of the infrastructure, Edison and city officials agreed it would be better, given the urgency, to purchase the desalination unit, which conveniently operates within the cargo container in which it was shipped.

    Progress toward new desalination facilities on the mainland has been slow, though Santa Barbara has taken steps to overhauling a long mothballed plant built about the same time as Avalon's original unit. Nearing completion in San Diego County in Carlsbad is a massive desalination plant intended to produce up to 50 million gallons a day, some 150 times Avalon's capacity.

    Don Knabe, member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, has been a booster of desalination, and flew across the channel to attend the ribbon cutting.

    "It's not a panacea," said Knabe. "But it's something we have to look at. It has to be on the table."

    Restaurateur Bray suggests the mainland someday will be in the drought situation now confronting Catalina, and can learn from Catalina's experience.

    "Watch out," said Bray. "The wave is going to be hitting you."