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Posts Tagged ‘Desalination’

Legal setback for Sweetwater Authority groundwater desalination project

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 9, 2011

The Sweetwater Authority’s plan to construct five additional wells south of the Sweetwater River in the San Diego Formation as part of its project to expand the Richard A. Reynolds Desalination Facility has hit a legal roadblock. In a ruling on the City of San Diego’s lawsuit challenging certification of Sweetwater’s Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR), Judge Ronald S. Prager agreed with some of the objections raised by San Diego.

According to the court’s Minute Order, four issues were subject to review: 1) whether Sweetwater complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in approving the project and certifying the FEIR, 2) whether the FEIR contained an adequate project description re. brine discharge point, 3) cumulative impacts, and 4) whether the FEIR includes a reasonable range of project alternatives or discusses feasible mitigation measures.

On issues 1 and 2 the judge denied San Diego’s contentions, ruling in favor of Sweetwater.

On issues 3 and 4 the judge agreed with San Diego that Sweetwater did not take into consideration the cumulative impacts of any particular past, present, or probable future projects, and that the proposed mitigation and monitoring are inadequate.

While the judgment has not yet been made official, it will be based on the minute order, according to Glenn Spitzer, one of the attorneys working on the case for the San Diego City Attorney (click here for a copy of the June 28, 2011 Minute Order).

The foregoing represented Phase I of what is called a “bifurcated” trial. In addition to the CEQA issues, San Diego had also challenged Sweetwater’s water rights in the San Diego Formation. The water rights question will be addressed in a Phase II portion of the trial. A resolution on the water rights issue could take a couple of years, according to Mr. Spitzer.

I wasn’t able to get comments from San Diego or Sweetwater officials, but the issue is on the closed agenda for next Wednesday’s July 13, 2011 Sweetwater Authority Board Meeting.

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A sweet water resource but there’s some salt in the mix

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 8, 2011

On average, San Diego County imports a sobering 80% of its water supply from hundreds of miles away in Northern California and the Colorado River. That figure varies though, depending on which of the 24 member agencies of the San Diego County Water Authority you’re looking at.

Take the Sweetwater Authority. If you look at a map of the Sweetwater service area sandwiched as it is between the City of San Diego on the north and the Otay Water District to the south, you might be surprised it can make do with only 41% imports. What’s the secret?

Sweetwater’s service area includes the western and central portions of the City of Chula Vista, all of the City of National City, and unincorporated areas of the County of San Diego (Bonita). But in a long sliver from the northeast flows the namesake river that’s responsible for much of the liquid wealth.

Illustration courtesy of Sweetwater Authority

For starters, Sweetwater Authority commands the surface runoff from the 230 square mile Sweetwater River watershed, beginning at Green Valley Falls in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, about a 50-mile drive from Chula Vista. The entire watershed is fully appropriated to the Sweetwater Authority. Sweetwater also owns and operates two reservoirs in the watershed, Loveland Reservoir, and Sweetwater Reservoir, which together have capacity for over 53,000 acre feet.


Next, the Sweetwater Authority sits above productive groundwater aquifers. Its National City wells on the Sweetwater River Basin Alluvial Aquifer can supply up to 2 million gallons per day (gpd) of potable water, and additional wells drawing brackish water from the adjacent San Diego Formation aquifer are treated in a desalination facility with a capacity of 4 million gallons per day (gpd).

Looking to increase local storage capacity, Sweetwater Authority and the City of San Diego are cooperating on a proposed four reservoir intertie that could effectively allow them to share an additional 100,000 acre feet of storage without increasing reservoir size, through shared “load balancing” (my term). Some of the extra water could come from local runoff that individual reservoirs might otherwise be forced to spill during peak rainfall conditions.

As for future water requirements in the service area, the Sweetwater Authority’s 2010 Urban Water Management Plan looks forward to relative stability:

“Due to widespread conservation efforts, demands within Sweetwater’s service area have decreased over the past 25 years. Several changes in demographics are anticipated to increase water use in the future…This transition from undeveloped and formerly commercial to residential properties is anticipated to result in an increase in overall water demands within the service area. However, as new buildings replace existing buildings, water efficiency standards for toilets, showerheads, faucets, and urinals, as well as associated changes in outdoor irrigation practices to more “California friendly” landscapes, will cause the per capita water usage to decrease.”

Reverse-osmosis trains inside the facility.

There’s one uncertainty, though: a planned expansion of the Richard Reynolds Groundwater Desalination Facility.
“The Desalination Facility commenced operation in January 2000. The facility was designed to extract groundwater from four alluvial wells and five deep San Diego Formation wells, located on the north side of the Sweetwater River. A sixth San Diego Formation well was constructed in 2006. The Desalination Facility treats brackish groundwater using reverse osmosis (R/O) technology. The Desalination Facility was initially designed to produce 4.0 MGD of drinking water; however, it was constructed with space to accommodate an expansion to produce up to 8 MGD.” (2010 Sweetwater Urban Water Management Plan)

Empty pods in center would allow three more reverse-osmosis trains for a total of six.

One brackish water wellhead is just outside the door to the desalination facility.


As planned, Sweetwater’s Board did develop a plan to drill five additional San Diego Formation wells and increase capacity in the desalination facility. It certified a final Environmental Impact Report and approval for the well project last year, Feb 24, 2010.

An obstacle

The City of San Diego promptly filed a lawsuit March 26, 2010, challenging Sweetwater’s certification of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and approval of the project. San Diego complained that its concerns about groundwater depletion/overdraft in the San Diego Formation, saltwater intrusion, land subsidence, brine discharge, and other issues were rejected or ignored by Sweetwater.

Meanwhile it was discovered that Sweetwater’s Findings and Facts in Support of Findings had not been included on the CD distributing the EIR. The oversight meant the Board would need to again adopt the Findings and Facts and reapprove the project. This was done at the Oct 27, 2010 Board meeting.

Following this turn of events, San Diego filed a second lawsuit in order to challenge the reapproved project, Dec 9, 2010.

San Diego’s second lawsuit went further than just challenging the new EIR certification and project reapproval. It also asserted that San Diego holds Pueblo water rights to all water within the boundaries of the Pueblo, that the San Diego Formation aquifer underlies parts of the Pueblo, and that the proposed wells would tap the San Diego Formation. The City therefore asked the court for “a declaration regarding its rights to the San Diego Formation vis-a-vis Sweetwater.”

Because of overlap between the two lawsuits, the Court decided to consolidate the two cases on Dec 21, 2010.

San Diego probably feels it has no choice but to press a challenge. Presently San Diego imports 85-90% of its water. According to its Long Range Water Resources Plan (LRWRP) 2002-2030, “By 2030, the City’s reliance on imported water could be as low as 57% if most of the alternative resources options available to the City were implemented.” San Diego is investigating a number of groundwater possibilities. However, as the City’s LRWRP notes, the San Diego Formation “does not appear to recharge naturally at a useful rate.” It also observes “there could also be potential interjurisdictional and water rights issues regarding the City’s use of the basins because they extend beyond the boundaries of the City’s overlaying land.” The City’s lawsuit certainly speaks to that point.

For now, things have been quiet. At Superior Court the only thing pending is a Status Conference scheduled for Aug 12, 2011 in Dept 71, Richard S. Prager presiding.

[late word: although it wasn’t in the court record when I reviewed it last week, I just heard that there was a preliminary decision in June…that the judge agreed that there are several problems with the EIR. If correct, this could mean back to the drawing board for Sweetwater. I’ll post an update tomorrow.]


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Otay Water District aiming for new local water sources

Posted by George J Janczyn on June 28, 2011

As the threat of water shortages recedes in the public mind (for the time being), the fact remains that the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA, or the Water Authority) has to import roughly 80% of the county’s water requirements. As worrisome as such heavy dependence on the outside is, what makes water planners and managers even more uneasy is that the cost of imported water is rising with no end in sight and the availability of outside water is increasingly threatened by environmental and regulatory circumstances. Reducing dependence on imports is therefore a growing priority.

That’s definitely true in the case of Chula Vista, where the Otay Water District (OWD, or Otay) currently must meet all its potable demand with imported treated water from SDCWA. Actually, OWD’s service area isn’t just Chula Vista, it includes parts of southern El Cajon and La Mesa, Rancho San Diego, Jamul, Spring Valley, Bonita, eastern City of Chula Vista, East Lake, Otay Ranch and Otay Mesa areas.

In 2005 OWD delivered about 40,000 acre-feet (by comparison, the City of San Diego delivered about 199,000 acre-feet) although effective conservation measures over the past two years have reduced those numbers.

OWD has virtually no local water resources of its own. Some people might point to the Lower and Upper Otay reservoirs in Chula Vista but those belong to the City of San Diego.

Following the great 1987-92 drought, OWD in 1994 established a goal of being able to meet 40% of annual demand from local water sources if water becomes unavailable from the Water Authority. It signed agreements with the Helix Water District and the City of San Diego for access to treated water from those systems. It aggressively moved to promote recycled water use and required dual piping for new developments (one set for potable, one for recycled irrigation). Otay now maintains the largest recycled water distribution system in the county. It supplies the recycled system from its Ralph W. Chapman Water Recycling Facility and from San Diego’s South Bay Water Reclamation Plant.

The District is now directing a groundwater well project within the master-planned Rancho Del Rey community located a few miles east of I-805 and north of H Street.

It turns out that in 1991 when the McMillin Development Company was building in the neighborhood, it drilled a 7-inch well to 865 feet to produce water for dust control and soil compaction. After construction the company had no further need for the well and put it up for sale.

OWD purchased the land and well in 1997 and explored its potential as a potable water source. It appeared that a reasonable amount could be produced, but the water was salty and of poor quality, requiring reverse-osmosis desalination. After reviewing design and construction cost estimates in 2002, the District decided it could not justify the expense at that time so it suspended the project and waited.

By 2010, the cost of imported water had been rising dramatically and price increases projected to continue. Looking again at the well project, estimates came in at about $1500 per acre-foot. This time Otay decided it would be economically viable and the Rancho Del Rey Well Project was underway.

In September 2010 a new 12-inch well was drilled to 900 feet and testing revealed the well had the potential to produce 500 acre-feet of water per year (AFY).

A few weeks ago on June 16, 2011 the District held an open house to explain the project and show architectural renderings to neighborhood residents and other interested individuals.

The reverse-osmosis treatment facility design will feature architecture and materials to mirror the appearance and character of the residential and institutional structures in the vicinity of the site. The well site is adjacent to a large child daycare facility and the relatively new neighborhood is comprised of mostly single family residences. There are spacious parks, schools, and other public facilities nearby.

Proposed design for the water treatment facility

New connections to a District water main will include an inlet for blending well water with potable water and an outlet for distribution of the blended water into the system. Brine generated in the treatment process will be discharged into the City of San Diego’s sewer system in compliance with requirements of the National Pollutant Discharge System (NPDES), San Diego Wastewater Department, and the County Department of Environmental Health.

The environmental impacts and a detailed project description were published in a Mitigated Negative Declaration following CEQA guidelines.

Otay estimates that operations of the 500 AFY well could begin by April 2013.

Otay is also looking into the feasibility of purchasing desalinated seawater from a proposed reverse osmosis plant that is planned by a private developer for Rosarito Beach, Mexico.

The County Water Authority is also conducting a feasibility study of obtaining desalinated water from that facility, but Otay is evaluating conveyance and treatment options for itself and negotiating separately with the parties in order to produce a Principles of Understanding document for establishing water supply resource acquisition terms.

For additional information about the above projects and much more, please see Otay’s 2010 Urban Water Management Plan.


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