By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki

The proposed desalination plant would occupy the southern footprint of the El Segundo Generating Station along Vista Del Mar

Over the objections of Heal the Bay and a coalition of environmental activists, the West Basin Municipal Water District — a water wholesale agency that serves Marina del Rey, Malibu, Culver City, West Hollywood and most of the South Bay — voted Monday to continue pursuing plans to build a nearly $500-million ocean water desalination facility near the El Segundo Generating Station along Vista Del Mar.

“We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we do know that we’re entering uncharted territory with regard to water supplies and climate change. So we can maintain the status quo and wait until the next drought and then react, or we can prepare and evaluate our options,” Scott Houston, president of West Basin’s Board of Directors, said after a 4-1 vote to certify environmental review of the project, which does not yet have funding or a construction timeline.

Heal the Bay, Los Angeles Waterkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation argue that desalination represents the most costly and ecologically damaging solution to Southern California’s water supply woes. Drawing 20 million gallons of water per day from Santa Monica Bay and dumping salty brine back into it would risk harming sea life, consume a massive amount of greenhouse-gas generating electricity, and distract from less dramatic alternatives that wouldn’t increase customers’ water bills, said Nancy Shrodes, Heal the Bay’s associate director of policy and outreach.

Shrodes would rather the agency double down on conservation, double down on existing water recycling efforts and tap into voter-approved funding for storm water capture.

“One inch of rainfall is 10 billion gallons of water,” she said. “By capturing that, we take advantage of an existing resource without additional energy costs and also make sure we’re cleaning it up” to keep storm water runoff pollution out of the bay.

More than 60 people participated in a demonstration against West Basin’s desalination plans before the agency’s board meeting at the Carson Community Center, and many spoke during the meeting in opposition to certifying the project’s environmental review.

Conservation groups also raised concerns about desalination pumps drawing grunion and garibaldi eggs into its filtration system. Water district officials concede the possibility of some entrainment, but counter that intake screen passageways are thinner than a penny and that the project mitigations include restoration of species in a coastal estuary.

West Basin Municipal Water District General Manager Patrick Sheilds took umbrage at assertions that the agency is trying to rush through project approvals.

“In my 30 years working on water policy I’ve never seen anything more methodical,” he said. “We’re trying to diversify our water portfolio. It will also reduce our reliance on imported water. We need a local, drought-proof water supply.”

“Diversification [of water sources] does not mean pursuing the most harmful methods,” countered Kelly Clark, an attorney for Los Angeles Waterkeeper. “If West Basin was serious about climate change, they would not have spent 20 years pursuing the most harmful plan for climate change.”

Russell Lesser, formerly of the Los Angeles County Small Craft Harbor Commission, said the best argument for pursuing desalination is the looming certainty of severe droughts that won’t provide water for recycling.

“The problem in Southern California is that we don’t have enough water,” he said. “West Basin Municipal Water District has done an amazing job with recycled water, but you can’t recycle water you don’t have in the first place. With droughts projected to increase in quantity and severity due to climate change, there is only one way to ensure a locally controlled, drought-proof source of water — and that’s desalination.”