West Basin Municipal Water District took the next steps Monday night, Nov. 18, toward building a desalination facility in El Segundo, a project that has drawn fierce opposition from conservation groups — including some who staged a rally before the meeting.

Although not a go-ahead for the actual project, the board’s certification of the Final Environmental Impact Report in a 4-1 vote means the water district can move ahead in planning the next phases of the project.

Director Carol Kwan, who represents Hermosa Beach, Lomita, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach and parts of Torrance, was the lone dissenting vote.

“I listen and I hear you guys,” Kwan said. “The board does listen. We do hear. We have to find the balance in what we do.”

“My common sense today tells me that we should move forward to do more recycling, conservation and education,” Kwan continued.

The five-member board of directors heard mostly the opinions of those opposed to the project in a nearly five-hour public meeting at the Carson Community Center on Monday.

In voting to certify the report, Gloria Gray said she and other directors were doing their due diligence to carry out the district’s mission.

“We are concerned about the environment, but our mission is to make sure this region has a reliable water supply,” Gray said. “That’s our mission, so we have to look at diversification.”

Next, the board is expected to undertake a cost-benefit analysis and create a plan to finance the project before it is considered again at a later date.

Permits — including approval from the California Coastal Commission — must also be obtained.

What’s at stake

The proposed desalination plant would convert ocean water into roughly 20 million gallons of fresh water daily. It would replace a decommissioned portion of the El Segundo Generating Station at the north end of the site into something resembling a warehouse. The facility would draw in ocean water through an off-shore pipe once used by the power plant.

The desalination plant is estimated to cost nearly $500 million, based on an estimate several years ago.

Cost of the facility and price of the eventual water it produces were not analyzed in the recent report, which overall found there were no significant environmental impacts that could not be minimized during operation and the only significant and unavoidable impacts would be to air quality and noise levels during construction.

Conservation groups including L.A. Waterkeeper, Heal the Bay, Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation among others have lined up against the project. So have city councils at each of the beach cities in recent years.

Opponents of the project held a rally outside the meeting hall Monday, joined by Hermosa Beach City Councilman Justin Massey.

“The right direction is to move toward more water recycling,” Massey said. “We dump half a billion gallons per day of partially treated sewage into the ocean. It’s more sensible and there’s more support to build the infrastructure for more recycling than an ocean desalination plant.”

Those opposed to the project say it would be out of step in a region that has seen significant progress in water recycling and conservation goals in the past year.

L.A. Waterkeeper Executive Director Bruce Reznik called the desalination project “unconscionable” in light of its expected high energy usage.

The report, Reznik said, was deficient. Lawyers working with the nonprofit said the report inadequately considered alternatives to desalination or a below-ground intake method. The group now has 30 days to file a lawsuit, something Reznik spoke openly about at the public meeting.

During the comment period Monday, those opposed to the plant dramatically outnumbered those in support, which mostly consisted of union members.

However, some of their comments, according to Board President Scott Houston, were out of line.

“The fact that people make blind accusations that we all just do this for the money, I don’t agree with that statement and I take offense to this,” Houston said.

In support

Supporters of desalination say it’s a necessary alternative in the face of inevitable future droughts and the possibility that an earthquake could cut off supplies to imported water. Sources from Northern California and the Colorado River, which account for about two-thirds of the district’s water supply, are already dwindling, cut off by regulations and increasingly more expensive. Ocean desalination could account for as much as 11% of the district’s water supply.

“We’ve always had droughts,” said West Basin General Manager Patrick Sheilds. “They are now more severe and last a lot longer.”

West Basin distributes imported water to roughly 1 million customers in 17 in the South Bay, Malibu and Hollywood. It recycles roughly 40 million gallons per day at the Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility and administers several conservation projects. The desalination plant, district officials say, would not replace those efforts but rather supplement them.

The district first started looking at desalination 17 years ago in a process Sheilds called a “patient deliberation and care for the environment personified.” Over that time, the district has spent roughly $70 million on thinking about desalination, including a demonstration project in Redondo Beach, according to estimates by L.A. Waterkeeper.

“This project is anything but rushed,” Sheilds said.

Russ Lesser, a former Manhattan Beach mayor and former Body Glove president, said he was convinced the impacts to marine life would be minimal.

“For 50 years I have been involved in ocean conservation,” Lesser said. “If I was concerned this was going to damage the ocean there’s no way I could support it.”

Small marine creatures that become entrapped in mesh screens at the water intake pipe and the salty concentrate that’s discharged in the desalination process were among the impacts looked at it in the report certified on Monday.

“As we face climate change and erratic changes in our water supplies, I think it’s incumbent upon us to consider desalination,” Houston said. “We have a lot more work to do as we take these critical next steps.”

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