Fort Bragg's desalination unit was tested, up and running Monday, waiting for a high tide Tuesday night to start turning the sea — or more accurately the salty Noyo River — into drinking water.
The unit — the first to be operated by a city on California's North Coast — arrived Sept. 26 and after a couple of days of setup, passed its first test last week.
The unit produces 200 gallons of fresh water per minute, bridging a crucial gap in Fort Bragg's supply, which is vulnerable to a combination of low river flows and high tides in late summer and fall.
Fort Bragg's city council has discussed desalination off and on since the 1990s, but the cost of the technology and of disposing of the salt byproduct were barriers.
In 2019, after a water crisis the previous summer that triggered extreme conservation measures such as restaurants in town being banned from washing dishes, the council initiated a more serious desalination study. Early this year, with rainfall seriously lagging, the city ordered the $200,000 unit, to be paid for by state grants, and applied for permits to the Water Quality Control Board.
Because the unit is relatively small, the water board is allowing Fort Bragg to add the desalination unit's salty waste product into the city's wastewater treatment system and then back into the ocean. But according to city manager Tabatha Miller, if Fort Bragg adds to its desalination capacity, it may not be able to get the permits to release more of the waste into the ocean. The city would then have to consider the cost of disposing of the salts, which at this point is unknown and could be hefty.
Northern California's only other municipal desalination plant, at Newark in Alameda County since 2003, treats brackish bay water and discharges the waste, which is less salty than sea water, back into a part of the bay with similar salinity, according to a KRON news report in July. Huntington Beach is considering a massive desalination plant to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, pumping directly to and from the Pacific Ocean. San Diego's Carlsbad desalination plant, on line since 2015, is the largest operating in the United States.
Marin County's main water district is actively shopping for desalination technology, after its staff warned that another year of drought would drain its reservoirs. However, that district finds itself competing with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, for the very same units, with which he intends to build a “futuristic megacity” on the shores of the Red Sea, according to a report in the Marin Independent Journal. Miller said Fort Bragg's own search for desalination units revealed that supply chain delays and shortages are affecting that industry, too, and that no state agency, nor the California National Guard, has or is familiar with the technology. She said state water officials have shown a lot of interest in Fort Bragg's upcoming experience with desal, as has the national press. A reporter from the Washington Post is expected later this week, she said.
In the long run, Fort Bragg will likely have to consider a range of ways to keep increasing its water supply, and the Mendocino Coast may need to consider a unified water system and much larger storage. Miller noted that during water shortages in the 1990s, Fort Bragg considered a reservoir several times larger than the one it has now. Also, the State if California is fast-tracking rules to allow treated wastewater to by used by cities as drinking water, a measure Fort Bragg and many other cities will likely consider in coming years, she said.
For now, the high tides in the coming days will give the North Coast's first desalination unit, and the crew of city workers running it now, their initial test. So far, so good.
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The Mendocino Coast Healthcare District board met in special session Sept. 29, a day after its regular board meeting, scheduled for Sept. 30, was cancelled.
At-large health care district board member Norman de Vall refused to attend the Sept. 29 meeting, saying the meeting was not properly noticed. Board chair Jessica Grinberg said the meeting was publicized correctly and legally, and that special meetings need to be scheduled only 24 hours in advance.
Grinberg said she cancelled the Sept. 30 meeting because “important documents” were not ready for the session. She said she rescheduled the special meeting because certain items were “time-sensitive,” including a request by Dr. Jennifer Kreger for district support of an event sponsored by Hubs and Routes, a grassroots emergency preparedness project; consideration of a crisis respite center on district property, and authorization for the board to continue to hold meetings via Zoom, due to the pandemic.
By the time the September meeting was over, another board member, secretary Sara Spring, exited unannounced, reportedly upset with how one of the agenda items was being carried out. Spring initially agreed to a post-meeting interview, but ultimately was unable to fit one into her schedule.
Board chair Grinberg defended how she called the Sept. 28 meeting and put together the agenda, saying all the materials were available to all the board members.
After another tangle of abruptly cancelled and rescheduled meetings with essentially no notice to the public either before, or even sometimes after, the meetings had occurred, the board in August discussed improving how it informs the public about its work.
During last week’s meeting, board Treasurer John Redding had to explain that the district’s website had been suspended the day before the meeting for not paying its bills.
Board chair Grinberg chalks up the snafus on noticing and scheduling meetings, and other public information failings, to the district’s lack of staff. The healthcare district did hire a manager for a brief time in 2020. Over the last few months, in a series of closed session meetings, board members tried to come to an agreement with Jacob Patterson, a local man who has at one time and another offered attorney’s services to local individuals and organizations, sometimes for pay, sometimes pro bono. He applied for Fort Bragg’s city attorney’s job in 2016, was not hired, and has since made it a full time job to critique the city’s land use decisions. Last January, Patterson was the subject of a complaint by the union representing Fort Bragg City Hall employees for alleged “harassment and borderline stalking,” mainly in the form of hundreds of emails about various aspects of city business. His previous residence, Claremont, took action that required Patterson to speak only to the city attorney there, for similar email bombardment.
Grinberg said the healthcare district board has worked with Patterson over the past few months to hire him to provide legal services, then management services, then both. Ultimately, she said, they and Patterson couldn’t make it work.
“Action minutes” from the Aug. 12 meeting show the board voted unanimously to hire Patterson. On Aug. 27, however, the board voted again on Patterson’s contract. Grinberg and McColley abstained on that vote, de Vall was absent, and the contract with Patterson did not pass. Whether the Aug. 12 minutes are wrong or her memory mistaken, Grinberg said last Friday that the board did not vote to hire Patterson on Aug. 12. In any case, she said, he will not be working for the healthcare district.
Grinberg said last week that the district is working toward getting help from the Mendocino Coast Healthcare Foundation, the fundraising entity that runs WineSong and donates funds to the hospital and local healthcare needs, with the district’s own organizational needs.
For most of the past two years, the district has been getting by on the efforts of board members alone.
John Redding, for instance, in addition to being board treasurer, was also tasked by Grinberg with improving the board’s public communications - getting a website together, posting meetings online, etc. Unfortunately, due to a penchant for online verbal battles, Redding is banned from the two most widely read online forums on the Mendocino Coast. Kathy Wylie, administrator for both Mendocino County Fourth and Fifth District Facebook bulletin boards, said Redding “is one of the very few” people she has banned from the sites.
Known for bitterly defending his right to call COVID-19 “the China virus,” and suggesting that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “false flag” FBI operation, Redding was the source of too many complaints and conflicts on the sites, said Wylie.
Redding has also maintained an off-and-on dispute with Fort Bragg Mayor Bernie Norvell, carried on in the pages of the AVA as recently as last month, with Redding accusing the mayor of spreading false information.
Redding ended up crossways with the city in the summer of 2020 when he recruited city council backing for a co-generation electricity project on healthcare district-owned land, to be carried out partly by a company Redding owns. As reported in the AVA, Redding told the city council that he had the backing of the healthcare district board, when in fact the board had never discussed the project. Redding denied misrepresenting his or the healthcare district’s role, but the city, after initially supporting the project, issued a letter in August 2020 distancing itself from any such endeavor if it was connected with Redding or his wife.
One of the items on the board’s agenda last week was “consideration” of a county-run crisis respite center just east of the hospital, to relieve the hospital’s emergency room staff of caring for “5150” patients, people whose mental health crises were a danger to others or themselves.
After approving the project in August, the healthcare board put the respite center back on its September agenda for “consideration”.
Grinberg said this was at the district’s legal counsel’s request, and because Redwood Community Services, the organization that will run the center, had drawn up more specific plans for the remodel.
Redding questioned whether neighbors of the new respite center will be notified about the change of use, before voting to support the project, as he had in August as well.
Norvell and city manager Tabatha Miller were two of a handful of people attending the board’s Zoom meeting last week. Miller said later they had been surprised that the center was back on the healthcare district’s agenda after the board had given its approval the previous month. At the September meeting, she again explained the city’s role in approving the change of use.
There were a few items from August that did not reappear on September’s agenda. One was a report on the audit that was conducted of district finances, completed last July, that includes an explanation of nearly $6 million that the district received from the federal government to make up for local COVID-related losses, most of which is having to be returned to the Department of Health and Human Services unspent.
If all goes well, the next meeting of the Mendocino Coast Healthcare District Board of Directors is scheduled for the last Thursday of the month, Oct. 27, most likely posted on mcdh.org.