MENDOCINO Co., 12/8/22 — Fort Bragg, long powered by timber, fishing and tourist economies, is getting notice statewide for its push to create monetary green out of the Blue Economy, state officials said.
Blue Economy is the term coined for a nationwide trend seeking revenue from the ocean without extracting its resources or doing things that cause serious environmental harm. For Fort Bragg, Blue Economy leadership is also helping to create innovative solutions to the ever-worsening water shortage the city faces.
The City of Fort Bragg is ground zero for Oneka Technologies, a Canadian company working all over the world with wave energy to make freshwater. The company found Fort Bragg a willing partner to test its revolutionary wave energy-powered desalination device on the West Coast, a place that Oneka Technologies CEO and cofounder Dragan Tutic wants to be. After a presentation before the council, the city and Oneka put together a bid for a $1.5 million state grant that is now pending.
“The wave energy resource is the best it could be off Fort Bragg,” Tutic said. On the East Coast, the differential between hurricane and smaller waves is much more extreme than on the West Coast, he said. In other words, Fort Bragg has big, powerful waves all year round, and even big storms don’t wreak the havoc that hurricane winds and waves do.
Oneka has a device off Chile producing fresh water and one planned in Florida to water a golf course and other landscaping, coming online soon. Tests have been done in North Carolina, Maine and Nova Scotia.
The wave energy desalination plan is just one on a staggering list of quixotic-sounding ideas the city is exploring for creating enough water for the future, some already functioning such as the city’s desalination device, installed in just a few months last summer. In addition to creating fresh water, the proposals being considered by the city include innovations in use of solar and wave energy, desalination and environmentally friendlier reservoirs. Other ideas that have been looked at include a proposal to the state for aquaculture, large solar dehumidifiers, water brought by train, water conservation measures and buying water from Willits. The city also built a gigantic 1.5 million-gallon water storage tank recently.
But what are the long-term environmental implications? How many of these plans are truly practical? And why is it that so many larger cities are not investing in similar ideas?
Why Fort Bragg?
Fort Bragg has dived into the Blue Economy, delighting many residents, especially those who champion the suddenly active Noyo Harbor under new Harbormaster Anna Neumann and longtime proponents of Blue Economy measures and desalinization such as City Councilmember Lindy Peters. Peters has pushed for desalination since the ‘90s as a solution to the city’s water problems, but previous councils weren’t interested. Now the city is using desalination and has another plan in the works for more. The city also accomplished something seen as nearly impossible in most of California, when it completed the Summers Lane reservoir ahead of schedule in 2018. Building reservoirs of any size is difficult and controversial, and many have been delayed for decades, such as the Sites Reservoir Plan in Glenn County.
In 2014 California voters approved Proposition 1, a bond that dedicated $2.7 billion to build new water storage projects, but most of the money has been spent on studies and consultants, with none of the “urgent” projects ever being spent on actual reservoirs. Funding for large reservoirs has been a political football since the ‘70s, when the list of large dams that could provide reasonable returns of drinking water and power on large investments ran out, as documented in Marc Reisner’s book, Cadillac Desert. Fort Bragg has accomplished this by going small and being expert at knowing how a “dam” is defined.
More reservoirs in the works
Fort Bragg has a plan to build three more reservoirs on long controversial Mendocino Parks and Recreation District (MCRPD) lands along Highway 20. The city hopes to buy 584 acres of land off Highway 20, about 2 miles east of Fort Bragg and install three reservoirs on about 30 of those acres to store a potential 44 million gallons of water, which would double the city’s current storage capacity of about 22 million gallons. The city would rely on its existing water sources — Waterfall Gulch, Newman Gulch, and the Noyo River — to fill the holes they would dig. Catchments for rainwater would also be included. The project proposal approved by the council Nov. 28 is to use alternative energy, including solar panels, to help pump the water into the reservoirs. Fort Bragg City Council unanimously approved the plan for the three reservoirs.
None of the city’s proposed reservoirs block any rivers and streams. Instead, they are designed to pump water in during high flow times such as January and then use the water in summer months. They may also benefit from groundwater inflows.
The subject property was purchased from Georgia Pacific by the Friends of the MCRPD to be a golf course back in 2007. That idea was celebrated widely in the community and the timber company even cleared remaining trees from the land for fairways. But the golf craze subsided and the economy collapsed in 2008. Moreover, the golf idea married poorly with the parcel’s sensitive habitat. Then in 2014 it was proposed as a world-class off-road recreation site, but environmental opposition helped derail that. As time went by, trespassers, including off-roaders, used the property more and more as did those illegally dumping trash. Learning from these lessons, the city spent more than a year working with the Department of Fish and Wildlife behind the scenes to identify the best areas for the reservoirs. The city plans to build perimeter fencing, which had been a key sticking point, but a problem worked out behind the scenes with the regulatory agencies. The city has budgeted up to $2.4 million to buy the parcel from MCRPD.
Big ideas get heard in little Fort Bragg
Innovators in the creation of fresh water who say they have been unable to get return phone calls from cities on both coasts found a friendly reception in Fort Bragg. Mayor Bernie Norvell, Peters, other city councilmembers and Public Works Director John Smith have all been willing to listen to new ideas for fresh water creation. The city has consistently said water problems are getting worse and are likely to continue to worsen due to climate change. While climate change is still denied in many quarters, the city of Fort Bragg has been busily preparing for sea level rise and more critical droughts.
At the meeting where the council approved plans to study the new reservoirs, Smith told the council how despite the city adding Summers Lane reservoir and a huge water tank, reduced flows from the drought over the past 10 years has reduced some of those gains. Increased evaporation rates in higher temperatures has also reduced water storage.
Enter Oneka Technologies
Oneka Technologies reached out to the city after they read with surprise about the quick success of Fort Bragg’s small desalination plant, at a time when most everybody else was stuck in regulatory mud. Soon CEO Tutic was in communication with Public Works Director John Smith and made a presentation to the City Council earlier this year. Now the city and Oneka Technologies are awaiting the outcome of a grant request made to the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). The company hopes that it could set up a desalination device off the town of Mendocino as well, if the Fort Bragg project were to succeed.
The proposal involves no fossil fuel use or even use of the grid. If the pilot study works, a floating array of buoys that look like rafts would be located a half mile offshore, tethered with a special polymer rope, 3 inches in diameter. These would use wave energy to force water sucked in through input screens in a cube below the raft, anchored to the ocean floor, through a reverse osmosis process. Wave energy would power the water to shore near the city sewer plant, where it would be potable water, although possibly requiring some treatment, Tutic said.
“The energy required to move the water onshore would be less than 5 percent of the total. Desalinization takes a lot of energy,” he said.
The motion of the waves lifts up the water intake and creates the pressure to accomplish reverse osmosis, pushing clean water to shore and saltier water back into the ocean. The buoys are made from recycled plastic bottles, run on mechanical power from waves as they float in the ocean, creating up to 13,000 gallons of fresh water a day – while discharging far less concentrated salty brine than other designs
Tutic said the biggest obstacle is the permitting process. The company has been exploring an expedited permitting process, which Tutic would not describe. A wave energy test device off the pier at the Scripps Institute of Technology created by Calwave, call the X1, has been functioning for 10 months now and may help pave the permitting way for the trial in Fort Bragg. That device got permits from the U.S Army Corps of Engineers,California Coastal Commission,California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the California Water Quality Control Board, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S Coast Guard. That process was considered streamlined and comprised a map for the Fort Bragg project to follow.
Resolute Marine, a competitor of Oneka, also expressed an interest in Fort Bragg. Resolute Marine worked with the city of Santa Barbara nearly a decade ago when the drought was at its worst there, but gave up due to the byzantine California permitting process. Resolute is working to create wave energy power and power in the African nation Cape Verde, which could use its superb natural resources if it had enough water and power, Resolute Marine company president Bill Staby said.
Desalination another source of water
One big idea that has become reality is the small desalination plant installed in the Noyo River in 2021 that will function to keep city water pumping when drought conditions drop water levels so low that salty inflows from the ocean penetrate far enough up the Noyo to infiltrate the city’s water supply from that source. Most astonishing of all to officials at the state level was that the city’s current desalination effort happened so quickly, in less than a year and at an initial cost of just $461,000.
The Newsom administration has created numerous proposals to fund projects for badly needed improvements ranging from homeless housing to innovative water solutions. The problem, Newsom’s office claims, has been getting local governments to overcome Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) forces and participate. The city of Fort Bragg dipped into some of that funding to create the Plateau, critically needed housing for the homeless, seniors and working families. Now the city is at the top of the list to explore funding for alternative energy and desalination.
Governor Newsom has made desalination projects a top priority. The administration has formed a working group to streamline the approval process for both inland and ocean proposals, said Charles Reed of the California District 1 Regional Water Quality Control Board. Many areas of the San Jacinto Valley have seen its underground aquifers turn salty as a result of over-pumping, drought and raising crops on arid lands that didn’t support farming prior to massive irrigation projects, another major issue documented in books like Cadillac Desert. Desalination has become more necessary because newly irrigated farmland flushed mineral salts from these dry lands into groundwater and aquifers that feed wells. The spread of farming to every corner of the state in the 20th century created an ever-worsening problem with salty runoff and groundwater.
In 2017, the Department of Water Resources received 30 proposals for the Water Desalination Grant Program, Round 4, funded by Proposition 1. The total request for funding was approximately $139 million for the 30 projects, with estimated total project costs of $622.5 million. DWR awarded funds to nine proposals, for a total of $44.4 million.
By this date, DWR has awarded over $81 million in Proposition 1 desalination grants ranging from over $100,000 to $10 million to 17 projects. Fort Bragg’s desalination facility installed last year was not funded by DWR.
The DWR is offering more grant money for smaller communities to study and develop desalinization, but currently has only four applicants. DWR expects to announce the draft funding recommendations in mid-January 2023 and the final awards in March 2023.
- City of Fort Bragg Oneka Seawater Desalination Buoy Design Pilot Study. The proposed amount is $1.5 million.
- Westlands Water District Desalination and On-Farm Recycling Pilot Project
- Water Replenishment District Brewer Well Optimization Project
- Castroville Community Services District Well 3 Desalination Pilot Project
Fort Bragg has led the way for nearly two decades
The entire national wave energy process was reshaped in Fort Bragg beginning in 2007 when two then-quarreling federal agencies (The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Minerals Management Service — later abolished and recreated as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management) participated in hearings at Town Hall about a wave energy process proposed by PG&E and others.
When wave energy was proposed in Fort Bragg 15 years ago, the idea drew strong local opposition, based on environmental concerns and the fact FERC had awarded exclusive study leases to big corporations. Since then, wave energy has refocused into much smaller ways it can contribute to the blue economy, such as powering offshore study rigs or even oil platforms.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission emerged from the process in Fort Bragg as the lead agency for all “hydrokinetic” energy permits, which generate power from natural water flows, such as waves, tides and even rivers. FERC also is the regulator of manmade water power projects such as dams.
FERC shows two licensed wave energy projects currently operating, one in Alaska and the other in Oregon, plus a tidal project working in Boston Harbor and a tidal energy proposal in Maine. The only other active hydrokinetic proposal is on the Mississippi River between Mississippi and Louisiana, though that has been delayed by drought.
The biggest effort underway for wave energy is PacWave South, now completing construction off Newport, Oregon. The project features competing wave energy devices all designed to be functioning this summer and part of grid-tied testing in 2024. Oregon beat out Central California for Department of Energy funding as the wave energy hub, though California wants to be part of that effort. State leaders have been receptive to ideas to test the technology off the California coast, greatly increasing Fort Bragg’s chances to get the grant with Oneka, one state official said. Fort Bragg wants to play a bigger role in the process, especially in regards to tidal energy in the greater Bay Area.
Public Works Director John Smith said the city considers the Oneka project the priority and will look at the other Blue Economy proposals, including aquaculture, later. Property that the Noyo Center for Marine Science owns adjacent to the city’s oceanfront sewer plant, where the fresh water could come onshore from the wave energy raft may become part of a future aquaculture plan.
The most modern wave energy plans are surprisingly like one that started the modern wave energy revival. (Romans used wave and tidal energy.) Scotland has been a leader since the modern beginnings of wave energy research since the 1970s when Professor Stephen Salter of the University of Edinburgh invented Salter’s Duck, the first modern working wave energy device. The curved bobbing duck showed great potential in test pools but was never deployed to sea. It’s very similar to the rafts that have now become popular.