In a 20 year battle, Surfrider’s South Bay and LA Chapters successfully killed the proposed West Basin Ocean Desalination facility in El Segundo. On December 22, 2021, the West Basin Municipal Water District voted to terminate the proposed desal facility in favor of pursuing more sustainable water supply options.

For nearly 20 years, starting with a pilot project in 2002, the West Basin Municipal Water District considered constructing an ocean desalination plant with a series of technical and environmental studies. In 2019, after the review and approval of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), the desal plant entered an evaluation phase based on present day conditions. Surfrider’s South Bay chapter opposed adoption of the EIR along with community advocates. Surfrider and local advocates argued that continued investments in recycled water projects and water efficiency programs are the preferred water supply alternatives for the LA region. In 2020, the District’s 2020 Urban Water Management Plan did not include ocean water desalination as a needed supply over the next 25 years.

In August 2021, West Basin released a Cost-Benefit Analysis of the proposed plant. The report analyzed estimated costs, rate impacts and affordability, among other topics and clearly found desalination to be the most expensive water supply option.

Other factors in termination of the project include:

  • Expansion of a regional water recycling framework toward reuse for drinking water, including groundwater augmentation to replenish groundwater basins with sustainable recycled water
  • Projected increase in groundwater use locally by retail suppliers
  • Increased water use efficiency standards statewide
  • Sustained reductions in demand water since 2000.

At a Special Hearing on December 22, 2021, the West Basin MWD board voted to terminatue pursuing the project and instead pursue more sustainable and affordable water supply options including groundwater storage, wastewater recycling and conservation. The graphs below shown by West Basin MWD staff clearly show the regional supply area’s water needs met in 2020 without the need for ocean desalination.

“I want to thank the West Basin Municipal Water District Board of Directors for taking bold action to terminate the proposed Ocean Water Desalination Project in El Segundo, and by such action refocusing their attention to water efficiency and conservation programs, and most especially to enhancing West Basin’s leadership position in wastewater recycling at their Edward C. Little Water Recycling Facility in El Segundo, which if expanded to full design capacity, will more than offset the proposed 20 MGD product water output from the canceled ocean water desalination project, but at a smarter and more immediately achievable, and much more energy-efficient and less environmentally impactful manner.”

– Craig Cadwallader, local policy expert with Surfrider South Bay

This is a hard earned victory that will help protect the coast, marine life and vulnerable communities from associated greenhouse gases and water rate increases. A special shout out is due to South Bay chapter volunteer leader, Craig Cadwallader for his tireless efforts in attending hundreds of West Basin MWD meetings over nearly 20 years to track and advocate against the project.

By terminating the project, West Basin set a bold course for the future of water management in Los Angeles that prioritizes reliability, sustainability and equity and fulfills its mission of providing safe and reliable supplies of high-quality water to the communities it serves. See the West Basin MWD statement on the termination for more information. 

Ocean desalination is the process of removing salt and other impurities from seawater to produce fresh water.   There are a number of desalination technologies, and if it is not done properly, the seawater intake process can unnecessarily kill marine life.  Desalination also produces a highly concentrated brine discharge that degrades water quality and marine life habitat if not properly diluted.

In addition, desalination is the most energy-intensive and expensive water supply option in California.  A great amount of energy is required to force water molecules through the small pores of a reverse osmosis membrane to separate them from the slightly larger salt molecules.  Desalination facilities increase greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to sea level rise and ocean acidification.  

The proposed West Basin Municipal Water District (MWD) ocean desalination plant was proposed to be located immediately adjacent to the shoreline, perpetuating industrialization of the coast as well as reliance on shoreline armoring, exacerbating beach erosion at a time when we should be moving away from the shoreline due to sea level rise and climate change related coastal hazards.

There are numerous ocean desalination facilities being proposed in California, all in various stages of planning or permitting. Many of the proposed facilities have not been designed to minimize degradation to marine habitats and water quality, nor are the proposals being thoroughly evaluated by any government agency for their cumulative impacts statewide. Perhaps worse, none of the proposals have been adequately compared to less costly and preferable water supply solutions. Economically and environmentally sound alternatives like wastewater recycling, improved stormwater management and harvesting, and multi-benefit conservation efforts like Surfrider Foundation’s “Ocean Friendly Gardens” program should be fully implemented prior to turning to ocean desalination.