Manhattan Beach opposes proposed West Basin desalination plant

Megan Barnes | Daily Breeeze News | February 17, 2016 | Access Original

Manhattan Beach is pushing back against a proposal from the West Basin Municipal Water District to build a $300 million full-scale ocean water desalination plant bordering El Porto in El Segundo.

The City Council on Tuesday took a strong stance opposing the plant, which would turn 20 million to 60 million gallons of seawater a day into potable drinking water for West Basin’s service area of 17 mostly South Bay cities.

The Carson-based water wholesaler is in the middle of preparing a draft environmental impact report for the plant, which is a key component of West Basin’s efforts to diversify its portfolio and reduce dependence on imported water long term.

The EIR is slated to be released this summer. If approved by various regulatory agencies, construction would begin in 2020 at El Segundo’s NRG power plant and water delivery would begin in 2023.

But officials stressed they have not committed to building the plant and said Manhattan Beach has been unwilling to give them a fair chance to make a presentation to the City Council and answer questions from the public.

“The current drought is so drastic that I’m here to say that if we do nothing to develop new drinking water supplies by the year 2040, we’ll be rationing water eight out of 10 years,” said West Basin General Manager Rich Nagel. “It’s important to clarify that no decision has been made on whether to build an ocean water desalination facility. This is currently an environmental assessment that keeps the option open as to whether the West Basin board should consider the next step.”

But residents, environmental activists and city leaders resoundingly expressed skepticism, saying the project appears to be a done deal, and they do not want such a massive operation in their backyard.

“It appears to me that a bullet train has left the station,” said Craig Cadwallader, a resident and member of the Surfrider Foundation South Bay chapter.

He praised West Basin for its water recycling plant in El Segundo, which produces about 40 million gallons a day of water for industrial, commercial and landscaping use.

That water has not been approved by state regulators for drinking, according to West Basin, but desalinated water is drinkable.

“I know that West Basin has said many times they plan to double their capacity,” Cadwallader said. “We’d like to see them bump that up a notch and, instead of doing the desal, do it through recycling.”

Others questioned how the plant would affect marine life.

Melissa Kelly of the nonprofit LA Waterkeeper said desalination is “the most energy intensive of all viable methods available to meet our water supply needs, even more so than importing our water from Northern California.”

West Basin has explored desalination for years, operating testing facilities in El Segundo and Redondo Beach and examining ways to make the process less costly.

Carol Kwan, who has represented the beach cities on West Basin’s five-member board of directors for the past 20 years, said the panel has not yet made a decision, but is doing its “due diligence” by thoroughly studying the proposal.

“West Basin has always and will always provide every opportunity for public engagement, comment and participation through an open process and transparent decision-making process,” she said, noting that she could not answer technical questions.

City staff said the EIR’s quick timeline does not give residents enough time to understand the project.

One El Porto resident said he was the only member of the public who turned out for a scoping meeting last fall.

Councilman Wayne Powell said a presentation West Basin made to the Los Angeles County Beach Commission “was more of a marketing presentation than it was informative.”

Mayor Mark Burton called the plant “a giant step backward in our commitment to getting the Santa Monica Bay back to its natural state.”

“A desalination plant will create irreversible ecological issues, we all know that,” he said, adding that brine flushed back into the ocean after the desalination process will create “dead zones.”

Councilwoman Amy Howorth said that after speaking with concerned residents as well as West Basin Director Scott Houston, she was conflicted on the issue and inclined to hold off on sending an opposition letter to West Basin until the EIR was finished, but that she was compelled by several residents at the meeting who urged the city to be proactive.

“Sometimes we as small cities just think we have no power or it’s not our city, or we’ll just wait and see,” she said. “Then all of a sudden big things happen to us and they affect us and it’s, ‘Oh why didn’t we say something?’ ”

In a statement, Nagel expressed disappointment in the council’s decision and said the offer for a presentation still stands.

“It’s unfortunate that the Manhattan Beach City Council took a position without hearing the facts and findings from our Ocean Water Desalination Environmental Impact Report,” he said. “While we appreciate Mayor Burton’s and the City Council’s interest in West Basin’s proposed project, we believe it is too soon to make a decision.”