2011-04-07 / Front Page

T.O., Camarillo may join forces to build desalter

Plant would provide source of water
By Michelle Knight

Without imported water, there wouldn’t be a Thousand Oaks.

“If it wasn’t for state water, Thousand Oaks wouldn’t have incorporated,” said Mark Watkins, the city’s director of public works.

Unfortunately, that dependence comes with a heavy price.

That’s because the precious resource conveyed south through hundreds of miles of pipeline and open canals has been susceptible to environmental regulations, droughts, floods and other natural disasters that have affected the supply.

In Thousand Oaks, the average water bill jumped from $70 in 2009 to $91 last July, a 30 percent increase.

As with many Southern California cities, T.O. relies wholly on water imported from Northern California via the State Water Project. City officials would like to see that change.

As one way of reducing the area’s dependence on imported water, the construction of a regional desalination plant in Camarillo is being discussed.

The plant would remove salt from water pumped out of large aquifers that exist beneath the city, providing up to 4,500 gallons of water a minute, enough to supply nearly 15,000 households with water for a year.

Because of the shared benefits and the high cost—an estimated $50 million—to construct the plant, the city of Camarillo and Calleguas Municipal Water District, the water supplier for southern Ventura County, have asked Thousand Oaks and the Camrosa Water District in Camarillo to share the costs.

“It’s an effort by government agencies all working together to improve supply, reliability and management costs,” said Susan Mulligan, Calleguas’ general manager. “I think it’s a good thing.”

The proposed North Pleasant Valley Desalter will cost $3.7 million a year to operate and maintain. The plant would be built in an area north of Las Posas Road and east of Somis Road. The exact location has not been determined.

But first the four entities must make sure there’s enough water underground to keep a desalter running for about 30 years—sufficient time to make an investment worthwhile, Mulligan said.

The Thousand Oaks and Camarillo city councils and the boards of Calleguas and Camrosa recently agreed to pay $30,000 each toward a study to determine how many aquifers exist in Camarillo.

If the results of that study are positive, the group would then have an environmental impact report prepared and an attorney evaluate how best to legally structure their union as partners in the facility.

The four partners may have to kick in an additional $30,000 at that point.

“We don’t know exactly what all these things will cost,” Mulligan said.

To help with the costs, the group was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, the agency charged with managing aquifers in most of Ventura County.

Brine line

To facilitate the construction of desalter facilities, in 2009 Calleguas began building a $200-million regional brine line to stretch from Port Hueneme to Simi Valley. Desalting facilities would connect to the line, which will carry the extracted salt 2,000 feet beyond the Port Hueneme shoreline.

Mulligan said the salted water from the brine line, too salty for human consumption or crop irrigation, won’t hurt the ocean because its salt content is one-tenth the concentration in sea water. Calleguas had to convince the Regional Water Quality Control Board of that in order to obtain a permit to build the brine line.

Work on the pipeline in Port Hueneme was recently completed. The brine line is expected to reach the site where the North Pleasant Valley Desalter would be built in 2013 and Simi Valley in 2021.

Not only cities but farmers and others can build desalter facilities along the brine line path to produce potable water from aquifers. The discharge fee has yet to be determined by Calleguas’ board, Mulligan said.

Camrosa, which serves east Camarillo through the Santa Rosa Valley, plans to build a desalter facility near California State University Channel Islands. Construction is expected to start in the fall and be complete in the summer of 2012.

Frank Royer, Camrosa’s general manager, said the facility should produce 1,000 acre feet of water a year, reducing the district’s dependence on imported water by 10 percent.

Benefits to Camarillo,

Thousand Oaks

Lucie McGovern, Camarillo’s deputy director of public works, said the North Pleasant Valley Desalter facility could make the city “drought-proof.”

Camarillo uses 10,000 acre feet of water a year. Sixty percent of that water is imported from the north, while 40 percent comes from underneath the city.

McGovern said the desalter plant has the potential to produce 75 percent of the water that Camarillo needs, so only 25 percent would have to be imported.

“Camarillo is very motivated, and we’ve been studying it for a while,” McGovern said.

Also, the desalter plant is expected to extract more salt from water pumped out of aquifers than what is now being extracted, she said. That means water entering the city’s wastewater treatment plant will have a lower salt content, helping Camarillo meet a state requirement.

Desalted water should cost less than imported water. Based on early estimates, Calleguas said, water from the North Pleasant Valley Desalter would cost about $950 per acre foot. Imported water costs about $980 an acre foot and the price is expected to climb 6 percent a year, Calleguas said.

The partners will share the water from the desalter proportionate to their investment. Thousand Oaks uses 12,000 acre feet of water a year.

The boards of the water agencies and the Camarillo and T.O. city councils will determine if and how much of a stake they’ll invest in the desalter.

It’s unlikely that T.O. would ever build a desalter plant of its own, Watkins said.

First, there isn’t enough permeable and porous rock underneath the city to allow for much accumulation of groundwater. Second, the city is situated too far from where the brine line will be laid.

T.O. and Camarillo officials agree the desalter will not lower consumers’ water rates but could stabilize them because the cities will be less dependent on the fluctuations and precarious nature of imported water.

In the past three years, Camarillo water rates climbed 50 percent, going from $30 a month in 2008 to the current $45.

Watkins said desalting underground water for human consumption is the wave of the future. Water from aquifers, which doesn’t evaporate and is replenished by rain and irrigation, can be used over and over again.

“Twenty years from now people will say (of the desalter), ‘Man, that was freaking brilliant,’” Watkins said.

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