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Published on April 15th, 2016 | by Reporters Desk

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Southern California Edison Expands Desalination Technology on Catalina to Fight Drought

By Christian Guzman, Editorial Intern

While cities throughout California are coping with the drought by mandating water reductions and instituting fines, the Catalina Island city of Avalon is adding a technological strategy: Southern California Edison recently installed a second desalination plant for the city’s use.

In 1991, Avalon became the first California city to augment its water needs with sea water. When the first desalination plant was brought online, it supplied one-third of the city’s fresh water. But the city’s population has grown and with it the demand for water in an already water-deficient state. On Dec. 5 of this past year, a second plant was activated to manage the increased demand and decreased supply.

The Middle Ranch Reservoir, Avalon’s main source of fresh water, has steadily diminished during California’s drought. The California Public Utilities Commission monitors the reservoir and mandates conservation at critical points. In 2014, the reservoir fell below 300 acre feet, which caused the commission to order 25 percent water rationing for Avalon.

Despite obstacles, the people of Avalon remain determined and resourceful. When the drought was at its worst, they managed to shave their water use by 46 percent, which exceeded the mandated reductions. In Avalon, water conservation is a way of life.  Businesses and residents’ response included shipping laundry to the mainland and installing salt water toilets in about 90 percent of homes. Restaurants even served disposable utensils to avoid washing silverware.

The drought persisted the next year. The Middle Ranch Reservoir approached 200 acre feet. The California Public Utilities Commission would then mandate 50 percent water rationing.

“With a local economy dependent on nearly 1 million tourists and visitors each year, that [50 percent] reduction would have crippled the island,” said Andrew Veis, a spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe’s Office.

Knabe championed the establishment of a new desalination plant through negotiations with Avalon and Southern California Edison. This past year, he proposed funding for the plant with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. In February, the board allocated $500,000 for the plant’s funding. Avalon contributed an additional $500,000 to Southern California Edison, which operates both desalination plants, to mitigate cost increases to customers. However, since the plant cost more than $3 million, the people of Avalon still will see some increase in their bills.

Ron Hite, the Catalina Island Southern California Edison district manager said that the new desalination plant treats 240 to 400 gallons of saltwater per minute. Each day, the plant is expected to provide 125,000 gallons of freshwater.

Avalon’s residents are excited to have the desalination plant up and running. Without it, hotels and restaurants would be forced to turn away some customers to stay within their water allotments. Southern California Edison estimated that there would have been a 10 percent revenue loss to the city. But at the request of SCE, the California Public Utilities Commission agreed to not initiate 50 percent water rationing when the Middle Ranch Reservoir reached 200 acre feet. The commission determined that the plant could produce enough freshwater to supplement the reservoir’s reserves. Businesses and residents have been spared for now.

“We’re really relying on this new desal plant to get through this severe drought,” Avalon restaurant owner Steve Bray said. “If [rain] doesn’t come, this [plant] is going to … make sure we have enough water over here.”

The desalination plants, new and old working in tandem, can provide about 300,000 gallons of freshwater a day to Avalon. Business owners and residents will stay at 25 percent water rationing, instead of 50 percent. But their relief may only be temporary.

California has been in a drought for more than four years now. This year’s El Niño has helped some, but NASA has concluded that California needs three more years of above average rainfall to return statewide reserves to normal. In a report to the Avalon City Council, Southern California Edison noted that even with both desalination plants providing fresh water, peak summer demand cannot be supported. If the Middle Ranch Reservoir continues to drop, further rationing will be unavoidable.

Avalon’s residents are aware of this dismal possibility. Some people believe the government needs to do more to secure water for their city.

“The city [government] is trying, but more needs to be done by the state and federal governments,” said Gregg Miller, manager of Hotel Metropole in Avalon. “We need more [water] storage and production.”

More infrastructure would help make fresh water more available, but construction would be costly. Residents also want the government to help pay for this.

“The state and federal government need to help us pay [for costs],” Miller said. “Most water users are tourists, and we [the residents of Avalon], cannot afford to absorb the costs.”

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