Thirsty Long Beach turns to the ocean for water

Desalination plant would give city its own water source.

The Press Telegram – By Kelly Puente

LONG BEACH – Like most cities in the Southland, Long Beach has experienced the driest season on record.

Residents concerned over the parched conditions and rising water bills have been calling the city’s water department, inquiring about alternative conservation methods.

“We’ve been getting a lot of calls asking about the progress of our desalination plant,” said Ryan Alsop, director of government and public affairs at the Long Beach Water Department.

Since the fall of 2005, Long Beach’s Desalination Project has been researching ways to extract salt from sea water at a reduced cost.

The large-scale research facility, located on the Haynes Generation Station grounds in East Long Beach, currently produces close to 300,000 gallons of water per day for testing.

Although close to 2,000 cities in the United States currently have active desalination plants, Long Beach is taking its time to research a more cost-effective and environmentally friendly method, Alsop said.

Concerns have been raised by environmentalists over traditional desalination methods. These methods draw water out of the ocean as through a straw, he said, and fish and other sea creatures get stuck in the intake pipes.

Also, brine, desalination’s salty by-product, is dumped back into the ocean, increasing the area’s salt concentration.

The Long Beach project is currently researching alternative processes of extracting sea water, such as using the ocean floor as a natural filter and barrier for sea creatures.

By the end of the year, the city will begin constructing two 40-foot-long filtration systems on the beach at Junipero Avenue and Ocean Boulevard, Alsop said.

The filters, located 15 feet under the ocean floor, should go virtually unnoticed by beachgoers once construction is complete, he said.

The desalination project’s goal is to decrease Long Beach’s dependence on outside water sources, Alsop said. Long Beach currently receives 75 percent of its water from the San Joaquin River Delta.

If the research is successful, the city will build a larger plant and begin to filter purified sea water into the town’s water supply by 2012.

The plant is currently finishing the first of three phases of research, Alsop said, and will announce its results by the end of the year.

“We’re moving at full speed,” he said. “But we also want to make sure the results are economically and environmentally responsive.”

A major obstacle, however, is cost.

Imported water costs about $500 per acre-foot, compared to $1,200 per acre-foot for desalinated water, Alsop said. The typical family uses one acre-foot of water per year.

“It’s not the most cost-effective option right now,” he said.

While traditional desalination methods push water through a single membrane at high pressure to extract the salt, the plant is researching a new technique, known as “The Long Beach Method,” which uses a second membrane and reduced water pressure.

The method, developed by retired Long Beach Water Department engineer Diem Vuong, uses about 30 to 40 percent less energy, Alsop said.

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