Educating Catalina Visitors on Ongoing Water Conservation Efforts

SCE’s district manager discusses the extraordinary contributions of residents and businesses.

Since implementing Stage 3 Mandatory Water Rationing on Catalina Island on Sept. 6, Southern California Edison is continuing to reach out to the public, focusing on island residents and businesses, on the implementation of the more restrictive water rationing.

But educating the broader public and visitors, who are not familiar with the drought impacts on the island, requires additional outreach. Ron Hite, SCE’s district manager on Catalina, has been providing insights on the uniqueness of the island’s water system and has conducted  interviews with local print and radio outlets and recently sat down for a conversation with CBS Evening News.

In this Q&A, Hite discusses water conservation, the desalination plants and some of the potential fixes to mitigate Catalina’s drought conditions.    

Q: How many customers do you have on the island? And what services does SCE provide?

A: SCE provides electric, water and gas service to about 4,000 year-round residents on the island and more than 700,000 visitors each year. Due to the extraordinary efforts of residents and businesses, the island has been conserving at a rate of over 40 percent since the implementation of water rationing, though only a 25 percent reduction was required — and this with increasing numbers of visitors to the island.

Catalina Island - Water Rationing

Ron Hite, SCE's district manager in Catalina, speaks with the media.

Q: How is Catalina different from the rest of drought-stricken California? What is the status of the island’s drought?

A: Catalina is unique in that it is a closed and isolated system. In many parts of California, unlike on Catalina, water can be imported along pipelines. Catalina’s primary water source is from groundwater pumped from wells into reservoirs, but, in all cases, only replenished by rain. As a secondary resource, SCE operates two desalination plants that serve the needs of most of Avalon where the majority of residents live.

Since Sept. 6, Catalina has been under stage 3 water rationing, meaning that Avalon residents and businesses, excluding Hamilton Cove, must use 40 percent less water than they did before Stage 1 Mandatory Conservation in 2012-2013; all other residents and businesses on Catalina must use 50 percent less than in 2012-2013.

Q: There are now two desalination plants on the island. How much of the island can you serve with your desal system? Is rationing still needed?

A: SCE has operated a desalination plant on the island since 1991. In April, a second desalination plant was added and has produced more that 8 million gallons of drinking water. In July, the state approved operating the two plants in sequence, bringing the capacity of the two plants to roughly 325,000 gallons a day.

The desalination plants serve the needs of Avalon, with the exception of Hamilton Cove. Hamilton Cove and the rest of the island continue to depend on systems not connected to the desalination plants and are fed from wells and the Middle Ranch Reservoir.

The Middle Ranch Reservoir water level is now at 127 acre-feet, near an all-time low. The reservoir’s capacity is approximately 1,065 acre-feet. Until there is rain, SCE must mitigate against the drought by protecting this precious resource.

The continued extraordinary conservation efforts of residents and businesses must continue to conserve the island’s resources.

Q: Can the capacity of the desalination plants be increased? What would that require?

A: SCE’s future plan is to operate the two plants independently to increase production to the mid-400,000 gallon a day range. This is an important long-term solution SCE is studying for the island. I say long-term because this will require additional state permits as well as the design and construction of additional seawater wells and pipelines. Each would be fed by its own dedicated supply and would increase the amount of drinking water to Avalon. 

Q: Some have suggested giant storage tanks be installed to store water during the winter when less tourists come to the island and use it during summer peak season. Is that a workable solution?

A: There are quality issues that develop when treated drinking water is stored for long periods of time. Water treatment byproducts can develop and hurt water quality if water is stagnant for long periods, so most systems keep the water moving or store it only for short periods.

However, short-term storage of water can help during periods of peak demand. SCE currently uses three storage tanks with a capacity of 375,000 gallons that are used to store water from the desalination units. That water is then sent to residents and businesses and the desalination units are used to refill the tanks. This helps avoid any potential storage decay problems.

Droughts have been cyclical over the island’s history — roughly every 25-30 years — so it may be unwise to build a large amount of excess storage that may remain unused for long periods of time. The cost of building storage on Catalina is also very significant so customers could have to pay for a resource that remains unused for many years.

SCE is currently studying the feasibility of building additional storage or using other existing island facilities and determining the optimal level of storage that makes sense to serve the needs of the island while balancing cost impacts to the customers.

Q: What projects are being considered by SCE to mitigate against the drought, both short-term and long-term?

SCE has been looking at additional incremental capacity from the desalination plants, developing additional water storage as well as working with island stakeholders on the feasibility of infrastructure projects that could help both short and long-term.

SCE will be sharing these efforts with island stakeholders in the next few months and will begin work on a few options to help mitigate the impacts of the drought on the island.

Q: Will more stringent measures be needed if the drought continues?

We have seen longer droughts in places like Australia, which recently suffered through a 10-year drought. SCE understands how difficult drought can be for island residents and businesses, but only rain can take us out of rationing.

We do not expect a particularly rainy winter this year, as we move into a fifth year of drought. Unless we see significant rain, we will continue with water rationing measures and depending on the state of groundwater resources, we could face further water restrictions.