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How nearby desalination plant will affect Newport-Mesa

Coastal Commission could approve Poseidon project in neighboring H.B.

November 09, 2013|By Jill Cowan

As they await what could be a final green light for a controversial desalination plant in neighboring Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Costa Mesa water providers have found themselves navigating something of a Catch-22.

On one hand, local water purveyors said they support the development of reliable, local water sources, as competing interests statewide jockey for an ever-dwindling water supply. After all, some argue that that turning sea water into potable water could one day serve as a part of a long-range solution for a looming California water crisis.

But on the other, they added, individual agencies are hesitant to commit to buying water that — at least for awhile — will be considerably more expensive than the water from their current supplies.

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"We all have to look at what ... water reliability is going to cost us," said George Murdoch, the city of Newport Beach's utilities general manager. "How much is the public willing to pay for that reliability? I don't have an answer for you."

The California Coastal Commission is set to consider the desalination project, which would take in ocean water and transform it into potable freshwater, at its meeting next week in Newport Beach.

Commission staff has recommended approving the project, provided the plant's builder, Connecticut-based Poseidon Water, takes a number of steps to mitigate the plant's effects on the surrounding environment.

Some of those measures, however, could kill the project, according to Poseidon spokesman Brian Lochrie.

So the company will ask the commission to "approve the project as proposed and institute firm but fair measures" to counteract the "insignificant environmental impacts" the plant may have.

Another aspect of the project commissioners are expected to explore is whether individual agencies will buy water from the plant once it's up and running.

And therein lies the dilemma, officials said.

Murdoch, who has followed the desalination plant through the debate that's swirled around the project for nearly a decade, said that about 70% of Newport Beach's water supply comes from ground sources.

That water, which is purchased through the Orange County Water District, costs about $425 per acre foot, he said. An acre foot amounts to 325,850 gallons.

The other 30% of the city's water is imported from outside the county, through the Municipal Water District of Orange County, and costs almost $1,000 per acre foot.

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