California desal plant irks enviros


Updated 8/26/2011, 4 p.m.

The Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit group that works to protect oceans and beaches, just renewed its longstanding fight against a southern California  desalination plant. The group has long contended the plant would kill marine animals on account of how it uptakes ocean water.

But in June, the San Diego Superior Court said the plant's site, design, technology and mitigation measures were sufficient in reducing marine mortality and approved the Carlsbad desalination facility's plan to use water already being taken from the ocean from a nearby power plant. Last Thursday, Surfrider struck back by appealing the Superior Court ruling to the state's Fourth Appellate District.

As the West Coast and other parts of the arid West investigate this technology as a potential source of extra drinking water, the Carlsbad fight provides a window into the pros and cons of this technology.

Environmentalists say desal plants kill marine life through their water intakes and consume large amounts of energy; proponents say they are the way of the water-poor future and technology has reduced previous costs while drought and shortages have drive up the costs of other water supplies.

Many desalination plants take the salt and other minerals out of ocean water or brackish water and produce drinkable tap water by forcing it through membranes that "strain" out unwanted materials, like salt. Others use technology that distills the water through evaporation, among other technology types.

Energy costs required to run plants can be high--those that push water through membranes can require 2.5 kilowatts of electricity to provide one cubic meter of water, or 40 percent of desalination costs. The SoCal plant's developer, the aptly-named Poseidon Resources, says it saves in cost by piggy-backing onto coastal power plant water intakes.

But in the case of Poseidon's Carlsbad plant, Surfrider argues use of open ocean cooling water intakes by power plants is an outdated technology. Large fish get caught in the screens of the intakes and smaller organisms die during cooling. Some plants have used intakes located below the sea floor, which minimizes marine animal mortality, like one in Sand City on the state's Central Coast. But since the Carlsbad plant is using power plant cooling water it does not have that sort of system in place.

Poseidon counters Surfrider's arguments by saying it minimizes marine mortality by using seawater already acquired by the neighboring power plant. It also says its facility is an answer to water shortages in southern California. The plant would spit out about 50 million gallons of drinking water per day--about 10 percent of San Diego's thirst.

"The availability of water is lessening and the cost is going up, to the point that desalination in California is becoming viable as an option," said Paul Shoenberger, manager of the Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa. Shoenberger is part of CalDesal, a group of water companies and public agencies organized to promote desalination in the state.

Proponents also argue that conservation and recycling measures aren't enough for California's potential water crisis. Adding one more tool to the box may help in a crunch.

While desalinization hasn't yet become big business in the United States, it's widely used in more arid parts of the world. A recent report by SBI Energy says the global desalination technology market will jump from $12.5 billion in 2010 to $52.4 billion by 2020. That's due to a variety of factors, from increasing water shortages and demand to lower cost technology.

There are currently 19 ocean desalination plant proposals along California's coastline. Water from them would quench about six percent of water need in the state. But problems with the permitting process are often difficult to overcome, and California's track record with desalination projects isn't stellar--Catalina Island's desal project consumed up to 70 percent of the island's power; while the plant only produced 25 percent of the island's water. It was later shut down when it couldn't produce affordable water supplies.

The City of Santa Barbara's desal plant in the early 1990s was placed on standby after initial tests when rainfall ended a drought period. It is now on reserve as drought insurance and components have been removed to make it less expensive to maintain.

And with Carlsbad, a long approval process with multiple agencies and litigation has held the project back for years.

Surfrider argues that desal projects mask a greater issue, which is that the state uses too much water and should focus on conservation and sustainable sources of water.

California Coastal Commission former chairwoman Sara Wan agrees. “We should be doing a lot more in terms of water saving before we go into desalination.”

Likewise, former Huntington Beach, Calif. mayor and 2003 California Desalination Task Force member Debbie Cook says California has enough water--residents continue to water their green lawns and indulge in water.

The appeal for the Carlsbad plant came days after a Marin County Supreme Court judge finalized a ruling against a Marin Municipal Water District approval of an environmental impact study for their own desalination plant. She said the EIS did not fully consider a plant's impacts to marine life, among other issues.

In the ruling, Judge Lynn Duryee also wrote water conservation measures were more effective, not costly and had no environmental impacts compared with a desalination plant.

Given the environmental and economic costs of desalination, it remains to be seen whether they will prove viable in the Western U.S. But at least in California, developers keep proposing them, and fights over their costs and benefits continue.

Perhaps the lesson will be learned the hard way. As Cook says, "if you build an expensive project like desal, it will force the raising of water rates, which will make people curtail (their use)."

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr user recompose.

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