Launched by Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) around 2000, this project now the sole responsibility of South Coast Water District (SCWD), once upon a time seemed destined to provide significant volumes of potable water to augment all of our South Orange County (SOC) utility supply portfolios.

Time has been neither kind to, or on, this project’s side. In fact, time has passed it by. Back around 2000, industry pundits predicted that Direct Potable Reuse (DPR), i.e., purifying, filtering and treating wastewater to domestic use drinking standards, was decades away, as much as 25 years out.

Yesterday has become today. DPR is imminent, updates to State guidelines are expected in the next few years and California should have parameters for regulatory compliance in place by 2026-2027. 

MWDOC knew that we in SOC have little underground storage capacity, no enormous, isolated aquifers like our neighbors in Central and North OC. Without a doubt the most creative and innovative utility, Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), in partnership with Rancho Mission Viejo, is beginning to realize much greater independence in leaps and bounds using optional strategies. 

The Board’s vision and superior engineering staff’s achievements will increase autonomy from wholesaler Metropolitan Water District (MET), the supplier to broker MWDOC. SMWD’s robust portfolio objectives are gradually being assertively realized. 

This includes open air storage for reclaimed water that could eventually transition into drinking supply resources, like recently opened Trampas Reservoir (5,000 acre feet) out on the Ortega Highway. One acre foot = 326,000 gallons of water. Browsers can peruse and observe that SMWD’s pursuit is both inspirational and cost effective.

Around 2010, the invested desalination stakeholder group had grown, and was composed of MWDOC, SCWD, Laguna Beach County Water District, utilities from the cities of San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano plus Moulton-Niguel Water District. They were partners pooling funds, including a pilot/demo installation, an unorthodox, experimental extraction technology using a singular “slant well.”

Then all but SCWD unceremoniously abandoned ship. The cost/benefit ratio just didn’t compute at $2000+ per acre foot, twice what MWDOC charged in 2010. SCWD made the financially imprudent, risky, “damn the torpedoes” decision to go it alone. 10 years later, not one of those partners has come back to the fold.

SCWD is a relatively small, under-funded agency and the red ink like the tide, as day follows night, inevitably rolled in. SCWD already owned 30 acres of open space next to San Juan Creek as a site candidate, above the PCH bridge, but not enough to offset soaring investment estimates. Here’s an artist’s rendering provided by SCWD:

With a proposed $100 million (now nearly completed) underground tunnel project in South Laguna starting, shirking its fiduciary responsibilities, SCWD continued to pour yet more of its customer’s money into what was a gamble: Doheny would get funded and go online with about 3-5 million gallon per day (mgd) production before the newest DPR standards were in place. A de facto race with time. 

The hybrid alternative though a known option all along was never pursued. One linear mile of “plumbing” away, just over the PCH Bridge to the west (across San Juan Creek in the photo) is the J. B. Latham Secondary Treatment Plant at the South OC Wastewater Authority HQ.

They already pre-treat and then discharge 6 mgd out of their ocean outfall pipe. Truly wasted water. A modestly-sized, direct pipe from SOCWA’s facility, tucked and hidden under the bridge, connected to a DPR plant easily co-located next to the ocean desalination on the SCWD parcel would have greater potential.

Blending, co-mingling 5 mgd of desalinated with a like amount of DPR would make SOC significantly more autonomous, more independent of MET water, create reliable new water, amplifying local portfolio sustainability. Estimates reveal that it would be competitive in pricing, reduce local domestic supply costs by 40%, down below $1500 per acre foot indefinitely.

The Doheny desalination plant installation with 5 mgd of production is now projected to be in the $120 million range and still soaring. A DPR plant would cost about 1/3 of that. This hybrid model that my NGO, Clean Water Now has been touting will enjoy economy of scale and endurability by bringing back not just former stakeholders. We believe it’ll acquire the largest player who thus far verbally supports desalination in general yet hasn’t committed contractually to SCWD’s plan: SMWD.

SCWD continues to flounder and languish alone. Due to significant concentrations and volume of heritage chemicals plus metals in the proposed extraction zone that require removal, SCWD analysts themselves have admitted that the initial 18—24 months of drafting will not result in one drop of usable water. Meanwhile, if a DPR plant was built, there would be an initial 5 mgd production until the desalination production began.

Adding intrigue, as CWN has openly criticized at SCWD hearings and repeatedly objected to: The owner of the energy-gobbling slant well patents is the hydro-geological vendor to SCWD, justifying their own technology as the sole extraction option is an arguable conflict of interest. Vertical wells, completely off the beach, upstream above the PCH Bridge and in proximity to SCWD’s property are tried and true, proven extraction installations. Far less energy needed, less complicated and physically unobtrusive.

Everyone knows about the enormous carbon footprint that desalination installations require, DPR requiring far less. Ocean salinity is in the 25,000 mg/liter range, secondary treated wastewater is usually less than 5% of that, hence less reduction, separation and filtration expenditures.

Ocean desalination needs 2 gallons for every 1 gallon of production, a 50% recovery rate. DPR, even with the newer, more stringently anticipated standards that will include reduction and/or removal of “forever substances” and Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs), should get about an 80-90% potable production rate.

SOCWA migrating 6 mgd to a DPR/Desalination site is doable and cost effective via a collaborative, multi-agency effort. Perhaps SCWD could found and constellate a Joint Powers Authority because an umbrella management agency is intuited. After a 20+ year slog, now in over its head financially, SCWD gets its needs met daily, and having performed the heavy lifting should get a preferred rate, gradually recouping the millions already spent.

Why they’re not interested in CWN’s strategy is something their customers should be asking.

Roger E. Bütow is a 50 year resident of Laguna Beach CA. He is the Executive Director of Clean Water Now, a enviro-protectionist NGO, founded in 1998. He is also a professional land use and regulatory compliance advisor who has served on both the Poseidon Desalination (Huntington Beach) Citizen’s Committee for Orange County Water District and South Coast Water District’s Citizen’s Water Reliability Oversight Committee.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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