September 15, 2017
The Orange County Water District’s mission is to provide the 2.4 million people it serves with a reliable, adequate, high-quality water supply at the lowest reasonable cost in an environmentally responsible manner. Because of its dependence on climate-challenged, heavily regulated imported water, OCWD’s policy is to develop new local and drought-proof sources of water. In the process of doing this, OCWD has identified the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Project as the single largest source of new local drinking water supply available to the region. Thus, in May of 2015, OCWD entered into a Term Sheet with Poseidon Water for the purchase of the entire 50 million gallons a day the plant will produce.
What is essential to understand is that despite its landmark wastewater recycling program, which is affected by drought, Orange County is a semi-arid region that currently doesn’t have enough local drinking water resources to meet current or future population demands. The groundwater basin is at 38 percent capacity despite recent rainfall and record GWRS Basin recharge. One wet winter does not mitigate the need for a project that will provide long-term water supply reliability. OCWD is wisely considering adding the drought-proof water the Huntington Beach plant would produce to its water portfolio.
Being mindful that the interests of the Latino community on local water issues has historically been overlooked, the William C. Velasquez Institute undertook in 2016 a survey of Orange County Latino voters regarding the drought and water reliability. The survey found that both were of high concern, with three-in-four supporting desalination. WCVI followed this up, in May of 2017, by sponsoring a state-wide poll, conducted by Tulchin Research, that found California voters overwhelmingly support seawater desalination, across all demographic groups. This poll was verified in July of 2017 by research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California which found that state-wide 67 percent of Californians favor desalination, increasing to 78 percent when respondents were presented with both anti and pro desalination arguments.
When put in the context of Orange County’s, and Southern California’s, dependence on imported water, climate change and the threat of future severe droughts, the Latino community’s support for desalination makes sense. Orange County and Southern California receive its imported water from two increasingly tenuous sources.
The Colorado River provides water for more than 40 million people in seven states and Mexico. The Colorado River Basin, however, has been experiencing a historic 16-year drought. Over the past 16 years there have only been three years when flows have been above average, with authorities saying there is a 50-50 chance of cuts in deliveries starting in 2018. Continued reliance on the Colorado River presents a sever challenge to water managers.
The other source of Orange County’s imported water is the State Water Project which is responsible for bringing drinking water to 25 million Californians and providing irrigation for 750,000 acres of agriculture land. Its signature feature is the 444-mile long Aqueduct which delivers water to Southern California. The aqueduct itself is yet another tenuous factor in managing Orange County water. It is vulnerable to earthquake and subsidence.
Even with the “California Water Fix,” the water it conveys from the Sierra’s is vulnerable to drought, higher yearly temperatures causing early runoff, and the many controversies which embroil the Delta including water for endangered species and challenges from agricultural and municipal water rights holders.
Because of these uncertainties, the William C. Velasquez Institute and the vast majority of Latinos throughout Orange County support desalination. But water reliability is important for all demographic groups and all O.C. residents are entitled to the sustainable drinking water this project would provide.
Cathy Green is the Division 6 director of the Orange County Water District Board and former mayor of Huntington Beach. Antonio Gonzalez is the president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a non-profit organization dedicating to improving the level of political and economic participation in Latino and other underrepresented communities.