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Know the West

Ultimate solution?

Desalination may finally be coming of age in a thirsty West. Take it with a grain of salt.



One after another, city councilmen, legislators, farmers, business leaders, tourism promoters and water managers took their turn at the dais and spoke. Everybody agreed: San Diego County faces a water crisis, and desalinated ocean water should be part of the solution. With drought and climate change a reality and imported water supplies threatened, residents need a reliable local water source. Conservation is important, they all said, but it can't do the job alone.

For 10 hours last November, the talk went on. But when the hearing was over, the decision was left in the hands of the California Coastal Commission. The group has made enemies of developers for years and built a reputation as one of the toughest environmental bodies in the country. But when it voted 9-3 to tentatively approve the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, it did so over the objections of at least a half-dozen environmental groups as well as the commission's own staff. Their concerns about potential fish kills and greenhouse gas emissions from the plant were drowned out by the vocal support of just about every politician and water district leader from Southern California.

"I hope you make your approvals so we can get on building the damn thing," said Carlsbad Mayor Claude "Bud" Lewis, in one of many hearings, summing up the general sentiment of his colleagues.

Now, after numerous hearings and a decade of planning, Lewis may get what he wants. Last November's vote cleared the way for Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources to build the $300 million plant. By this fall, the plant had secured all but one of its needed approvals. The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board still must sign off on Poseidon's plan to offset the plant's effects on fish, but that shouldn't be a problem.

Desalination was once regarded as a pipedream in the West, like towing icebergs from the Arctic or building canals to divert the Columbia River southward. But the technology has since improved, and now, with the population growing and fresh water supplies threatened by drought and global warming, all seven Colorado River Basin states are looking seriously at it. So are Florida, Texas and even the Northeast. Some officials call it the ultimate solution.

Nowhere is desalination more popular than in California, where nearly 20 plants are in the works. It's not hard to see why: Southern California's population has nearly tripled to 21.7 million since 1960, but its water supplies are shrinking.

Today, Southern California gets about 600,000 fewer acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year than it did a decade ago. And with the San Francisco Bay Delta's ecosystem collapsing from diversions, drought, invasive species and pollution, a federal judge has ordered cuts in water deliveries to Southern California to protect the threatened Delta smelt. Southern California farmers took a 30 percent water cut this year, and city dwellers will face reductions next year if, as expected, the judge decides to protect more imperiled fish. This spring, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, declared a drought. By this fall, reservoirs had sunk to their lowest levels in 14 years, and officials were warning that they may have to cut statewide water deliveries from the California State Water Project by 85 percent next year.

Although desalination offers a guaranteed, drought-proof local supply, it needs more energy -- and churns out more greenhouse gases -- than virtually any other water source in the state. The pipes that suck seawater into many desal plants kill billions of fish larvae annually. And because desalinized water costs so much, some activists worry that it will put this basic necessity out of reach of the poor.

Desalination plants are fiendishly complex. Tom Pankratz, a Houston-based expert, calls desalination "the most complicated kind of infrastructure there is." The plants have to both pre-treat and treat water to render it drinkable. One Long Beach official calls the city's pilot plant "an O&M (operations and maintenance) nightmare." It took three years for Carlsbad city officials and Poseidon just to come to terms on how to run their proposed plant.

But the appeal of salt water won't go away. After all, it comprises 94 percent of the world's water supply, and it isn't running out.

Bud Lewis, the mayor of Carlsbad, is a balding, mildly blustery man who has lived in Carlsbad for more than half a century. The Korean War vet and former high school teacher once told an interviewer that his greatest passions are "the love of my wife and family, the love of Jesus Christ, and my love for the city of Carlsbad."

When Lewis moved to this placid stretch of Southern California coastline in 1954, there were 3,000 people here. He was first elected to the Carlsbad city council in 1970 and became mayor in 1986. During his tenure, Carlsbad's population has exploded; today, 103,000 people live on 42 square miles. Fifteen golf-gear manufacturing companies call Carlsbad home, along with 65 high-tech and biotech firms. There are 3,000 hotel rooms in the city, with nine new hotels on the way.

In the early 1990s, growth and drought collided in Southern California, and water use was slashed by up to 30 percent. Lewis began to think seriously about meeting his city's water needs. He was an architect of the city's growth-management plan, which caps the population at 120,000. But stopping growth alone, he says, is not enough to solve the city's water problems. In recent years, Lewis has learned a lot about water; he served on the boards of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the San Diego County Regional Water Authority. And for the last decade, he has also been one of the biggest boosters of Poseidon's desalination plant.

"I told environmentalists that if I had it my way, I would kick all of you people out. But you can't do that. You have to plan for the future. Water is planning for the future. This plant takes care of 10 percent of our water needs, and it is truly a blessing," Lewis says. "But talking about it is one thing and getting it is another."

Lewis put his political muscle behind the plant, even arranging for buses to take dozens of project supporters to public hearings. Poseidon has done its part as well. The company has spent about $595,000 on lobbyists in Sacramento since 2001. And it gave nearly $2,000 to San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' 2006 and 2008 election and re-election campaigns. Poseidon is also tied to the San Diego mayor's office through a political consulting firm that has worked closely with both the company and Mayor Sanders.

The proposed plant -- which would pump out 50 million gallons a day, enough to quench the thirst of 300,000 people -- would lie just north of the giant Encina Power Station's dark gray stack. It would suck water from a serene-looking neighboring estuary, Aqua Hedionda ("stinky water" in Spanish) Lagoon, which hosts oyster and mussel farms.

Poseidon's plant would join some 13,000 desalination facilities worldwide, which collectively produce almost 15 billion gallons a day, a number that's growing by about 10 to 15 percent each year. There are over 2,100 such plants in the United States, but they're generally small facilities that treat brackish groundwater rather than ocean water. Together, they provide less than one-half of one percent of all U.S. water supplies.

If the Carlsbad plant is built and its operation proves financially feasible, however, it could open the door to new facilities up and down the coast. As a result, the battle over the plant has become the front line in the nationwide war over desalination.

The company chose a good location to make its stand. Not only is the region thirsty, but Carlsbad is also home to 35 desalination-related companies, employing more than 2,000 people.

"San Diego County is to desalination and reverse osmosis as Silicon Valley is to computer chips," says Peter McLaggan, Poseidon's executive vice president. The company's promotional video says the plant will boost Carlsbad's desalination economy by bringing 2,100 construction jobs, more high-tech and biotech employers and $37 million a year in revenue. It also warns that if the water shortages aren't fixed, thousands of local jobs will be lost.

Flashing back and forth from testimonials to scenes of surf, sand and sun, the video points out that half of San Diego County's residents live less than 10 miles from the ocean, making it a growing market for seawater. And it says Poseidon will dedicate nearly 15 acres around the lagoon to hiking trails, a fish hatchery and beach access.

The video also contains an assurance from Scott Jenkins of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. A marine engineer who works as a consultant to Poseidon, Jenkins says that "the environmental impacts of these plants have been studied all over the world … providing scientists with a vast body of data which has confirmed that these plants do not harm the marine environment."

Finally, the video explains that the plant's filters will remove impurities so small they can't be seen by the naked eye. "The membrane converts sea water into two streams: ultra high-quality drinking water and concentrated sea water, which is then mixed with sea water leaving the power station to the ocean. The entire process takes 20 minutes."

Perhaps. But getting a plant built and running properly -- even in Carlsbad -- will take much, much longer.

"This is good stuff," Pete McLaggan says as he downs a cupful of freshly desalinated water from his company's pilot project, a miniature version of the proposed Carlsbad plant. He hands me a cup, too, and I notice a slightly sweet taste. Between the ocean and my cup, the water had to go through a reverse osmosis system, including a series of filters to remove debris, and then 8,000 highly pressurized membranes that remove salt.

Because of such technological improvements, desalination today costs about a third of what it did 30 years ago. Poseidon is so confident about the economics of desalination that it has promised that its customers will never have to pay more for desalinated water than for imported water. As a result, Carlsbad and eight other cities and water districts have signed contracts with the company.

It's a stiff challenge. Colorado River and State Water Project water costs anywhere from $250 to $700 per acre-foot (325,851 gallons). Poseidon, meanwhile, estimates that it can produce water at $946 per acre-foot, and it will get a $250 per acre-foot subsidy from the Southern California Metropolitan Water District (ultimately paid for by water consumers in six counties). That figure is hotly disputed, however, in part because of high energy prices: The Coastal Commission's staff warns that today's desalination cost is closer to $1,400 an acre-foot. (In fact, water from a host of new desalination plants in Australia costs twice that.)

The company predicts that over time, as demand grows, the cost of imported water will ultimately surpass the cost of desalination. But environmentalists and other critics remain dubious, and warn that Poseidon could ultimately cost ratepayers much more than they bargained for. 

Take the Tampa Bay region on the Gulf Coast of Florida, for example. In 1996, the court ordered a reduction in groundwater pumping by more than 30 percent by 2008, because it was drying up wetlands and allowing saltwater to invade freshwater aquifers. Three years later, Tampa Bay Water, the regional utility, opted to build a desalination plant about half the size of the proposed Carlsbad plant. It was to open in 2002 at a production cost of less than one-fourth the cost of the plants coming on line in Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Poseidon was put in charge of the project.

But in the next four years, three of the plant's contractors went bankrupt. Some filters lasted only four days, and membranes that should have lasted five to seven years had to be replaced after two years, recalls Ken Herd, the plant's director from 2002 to 2008. In May 2002, after the second bankruptcy, Tampa Bay Water decided to take control of the nearly half-finished plant. But the problems continued. By the time the plant was ready to operate in December 2007, the water district had sunk another $48 million into it, and the cost of the water had nearly doubled.

Who was to blame? Nobody could agree. But officials in Carlsbad say they'll insulate themselves from the kind of problems that plagued Tampa by giving the company total control. Still, that puts a crucial public resource into private hands, which critics say is dangerous. "As a utility, you can shift the financial risk to the private sector," warns Tampa Bay's Herd, "but you can't shift the responsibility of providing drinking water to your customers to the private sector."

Critics of the Carlsbad proposal, from the Sierra Club to coastal environmental groups like San Diego Coastkeeper and Surfrider, worry about a West Coast repeat of the Tampa Bay fiasco. But they have an even bigger concern: billions of dead fish.

In the early 1970s, researchers discovered millions of dead fish near power plants in the East and the Deep South. The kills were blamed on the practice of pulling power-plant cooling water out of the ocean with large intake pipes, distributing it to the plant through a condenser and discharging it back into the sea at elevated temperatures.

So California fish biologist Pete Raimondi wasn't surprised when, 15 years ago, as he started studying how marine life responded to the state's 22 coastal power plants, he saw oodles of dead fish. Some fish, birds, marine mammals and other large organisms get pinned against or otherwise caught in huge intake pipes. Others squeeze through the intakes, but die inside the facilities, from the heat or from high-speed collisions with one another or by smashing against the sides.

"Everything that goes in, dies," says Raimondi, a University of California at Santa Cruz biology professor who has reviewed Poseidon's plans for the Coastal Commission.

The San Onofre nuclear power plant north of Camp Pendleton kills an estimated 6 billion to 7 billion fish larvae annually, Raimondi says. Another 4 billion a year die at the Carlsbad power plant, as well as at the one in Huntington Beach. Desalination plants can take fish on a similarly fatal ride; in fact, many desal plants share water intake systems with neighboring power plants.

Power plants have tried to mitigate kills by putting screens on intake pipes, and they've tried to offset damage by restoring wetlands elsewhere. Southern California Edison, which operates the San Onofre nuclear plant, is building a 150-acre wetland restoration project in Del Mar north of San Diego. Meanwhile, Poseidon has agreed to construct a 55-acre wetland restoration, but it has yet to specify a site, and critics are dismayed by the fact that it has up to seven years to complete it.

Then again, the San Onofre nuclear power plant didn't even start building its wetlands until 2006, decades after it started operating. Today, the company is roughly half-finished restoring a tidal wetland in and around the city of Del Mar, bringing back to life an area that has been all but destroyed by roads, freeways, an airport and subdivisions. Biologists for the Coastal Commission hope this project will serve as a model for Poseidon.

"We've had some disagreements, but all in all, I think they are doing a masterful job," Raimondi says of the San Onofre wetlands restoration. He adds that Poseidon's wetlands restoration, if it goes as planned, will compensate for the plant's effects on fish. "The wetlands along the coast are so degraded, we need to fix them. This may not be the p.c. way to do them, but it may be the only way."

A recent federal court ruling, however, says those efforts may not be enough. The 2007 Riverkeeper II ruling curbed the freewheeling use of seawater intakes to bring in power-plant cooling water, and required the "best technology available." Plants must recycle the seawater, or install a dry cooling system that runs boiler steam through radiator-like coils. The ruling also made it clear that creating wetlands or other manmade projects to offset the fish kills wasn't enough.

As a result, the Encina Power Plant, for one, plans to modify its plant with a dry cooling system in the next few years. A quarter of all coastal California plants have said they'll shift to less damaging cooling methods, says Tom Luster, a Coastal Commission staffer. Unfortunately, desalination plants will not be able to piggyback onto those systems because the dry cooling technology won't supply enough water. Instead, the new desalting plants will have to rely on the same fish-inhaling intake pipes that the old power plants did.

Whether Riverkeeper applies to desalination plants is still up in the air; the ruling doesn't specifically mention them. But an analogous state law does cover desalination plants, and it is stronger than the federal Clean Water Act. Environmentalists have sued to get Riverkeeper applied to Poseidon, and if they succeed, it will likely put the kibosh on the plant.

"There's so few fish left," says Conner Everts, a Santa Monica activist who grew up in Southern California during the 1950s and '60s. "When I was young, we were catching yellowtail, bonita, halibut and sand bass off the piers out here. You rarely see those anymore. The stuff they catch now -- Spanish mackerel, croaker, Tommy cod -- they are small fish that we would have thrown back or used for bait."

Everts is director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance and co-chair of a coalition of environmental groups that questions desalination. He works in a cubbyhole of an office space in the back of a Santa Monica storefront. He was schooled in conservation back in the 1970s, when he worked on the Maine homestead of back-to-the-land pioneers Helen and Scott Nearing. He later worked for the city of Pasadena as a consultant. While there, Everts engineered a host of conservation programs during an extended drought, bringing the city's total water use down by 27 percent from 1986 to 1991. His staff installed low-flow toilets and worked with commercial laundries, the Rose Bowl, golf courses and restaurants to get them to conserve.

Conservation, he says, is the answer to Carlsbad's water problems, not desalination. Each person in San Diego County uses between 175 to 185 gallons per day, he says, compared to 128 daily inside the city of Los Angeles. By simply cutting its water use to L.A.'s levels, Carlsbad alone could save some 5 million gallons of water each day, reducing the need to turn ocean water into drinking water.

Proponents of the plant see things differently, however. For them, every drop of ocean water that's desalted results in another drop of water that is not imported from elsewhere. Less water would need to be pumped from the north or the east, meaning reduced demand on the Colorado River and California Delta, less energy use, and a decrease in the quantities of greenhouse gases spewed into the air.

Still, the 4,000 kilowatt hours or more that it takes to desalt an acre-foot of ocean water is about twice the power it takes to get an acre-foot of Colorado River water to San Diego County, according to the Pacific Institute, an environmental and economic think tank. So to make up for the difference, Poseidon says it will also rely on solar power and invest in a variety of carbon offset projects.

Critics, however, point out that any imported water that is given up by the utilities that opt for desalination will soon be gobbled by growth here or elsewhere. After all, throwing water at Southern California and asking it not to use it to grow is akin to throwing oxygen and tinder-dry brush at a wildfire and asking it not to burn it up. So even a giant desalination plant producing at full capacity may not ultimately reduce demand on other water sources.

"We know we are at a historic drought that is the result of climate change," said San Diego Coastkeeper director Bruce Reznick at one of the Poseidon hearings. "Why in God's name would we approve the most energy-dependent and energy-intensive project to create local water and exacerbate the very problems we are trying to fix?"

Such arguments were whisked aside by the Metropolitan Water District, however. The massive utility agreed to subsidize Poseidon's plant by $14 million annually because the water agencies using the desalinated water will forgo the use of an equivalent amount of imported water. In August, the full Coastal Commission followed suit, voting overwhelmingly to side with Poseidon on that issue and on the wetlands mitigation plan.

Afterward, Everts decided to go to work with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, promoting landscaping water conservation. He was drawn to that agency because this year it dropped desalination from its long-range plans in favor of conservation and wastewater recycling. Even after getting $1.5 million in state and federal grants to design a pilot desalination facility, the department decided a plant would be too energy-intensive, and would cost several million dollars more to build and have more complex environmental issues than expected, a department spokeswoman said.

"There is enough water to be saved out there, and when you save water, you're not only saving energy, you're cutting down on runoff," Everts says. "You're fulfilling multiple objectives, and you're getting multiple benefits. When you do desal, you are creating impacts and only creating high-cost water."

Still, some desalination plants have run into less resistance. For 10 years, the city of Long Beach has worked on its own pilot plant. Since 2005, it has run 300,000 gallons a day through the plant -- enough to supply a town of about 4,000 people. Because officials are regularly varying the water's quality for testing purposes, it is not used for drinking; it's simply routed back to sea.

Long Beach doesn't expect to operate a full-scale plant until about 2015, and it will produce no more than 10 million gallons a day. But the finished plant will run on a new technology, called dual-stage nanofiltration, that's drawn a lot of interest in the water world. In research slated to be published this fall, the department, working with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, concludes that its new technology -- known as "the Long Beach Way" -- is 20 to 30 percent more energy-efficient than reverse osmosis. That's because its membranes are looser and require less pressure to push the water through.

Five miles from the plant, city officials have just started testing another new technology: underground "beach wells." The wells are actually perforated pipes, poking 15 to 20 feet underground, designed to draw in seawater without killing fish. The system is modeled on a 13.2-million-gallon a day desalination plant in Fukuoka, Japan, whose wells lie 2,000 feet out at sea underneath 7 feet of sand and graded gravel.

"We believe that desal is the future, and there's no arguing the opposite," says Ryan Alsop, government and public affairs director for the Long Beach Water Department. "But right now, a number of major issues are hindering its development. We're taking the opportunity to build one of these things in a measured, transparent way, to position ourselves for building a larger one when the time is right."

Environmentalists joined the Coastal Commission staff in urging Poseidon to follow the Long Beach Way. But Poseidon refused, saying its tests found that it would need 200 beach wells over seven miles. That would have been economically infeasible and also might damage offshore kelp beds.

Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute agrees. Beach wells are "very, very site specific," says Cooley, a senior researcher for the Oakland-based institute. "In terms of the very large, 50-million-gallons-a-day plants, beach wells are not likely an option."

A lot depends on whether California's drought continues. Desalting facilities are the norm in places that lack other water sources, such as the Middle East and Australia. The few plants that exist in the U.S. were originally built during or right after dry spells, but were later mothballed when the need for water proved less imminent. Today, however, with water becoming more and more precious, some of those plants may come back to life.

In 1992, a $250 million plant in Yuma, Ariz., that treats brackish groundwater was shut down due to flood damage almost as soon as construction was completed. Last year, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation tested the 100-million-gallon-a-day plant at 10 percent of capacity for three months. Authorities have found $15 million worth of cracks in the welds of many pipes. Nevertheless, they hope to restart the Yuma plant at about one-third of capacity next year. Poseidon has another desal plant up its sleeve, as well: a proposed plant up the coast in Huntington Beach for which the company expects to get final state approvals by next summer. Environmentalists will fight it, too, as will many Huntington Beach residents, although the city council supports it.

In El Paso, Texas, water officials opened a 27-million-gallon-a-day groundwater plant last year. It's only running at a fraction of capacity right now, but at full tilt it should end the area's long history of water shortages, and guarantee enough for a huge expansion at neighboring Fort Bliss Army Base. According to Tom Pankratz, the desalination consultant, two recently built brackish-water plants are running smoothly in central California, several new seawater plants are in the works in Florida, two plants are under construction in Massachusetts, and a wind-powered facility is under study in Texas.

Yet Pankratz agrees with other experts that all desalination plants must be handled with extreme care and constructed at deliberate speed because of their cost and complexity. 

A variety of researchers have joined California officials and the Coastal Commission in endorsing desalination, at least in theory. Both the National Academy of Sciences and the Pacific Institute, an environmental think tank, say they believe it will be part of the West's water future. But they also agree that a long list of uncertainties about cost, energy and environment must be resolved.

"In the end, decisions about desalination developments will revolve around complex evaluations of local circumstances and needs, economics, financing, environmental and social impacts, and available alternatives," says the Pacific Institute in a 2006 report.

Conner Everts says that desalination is tantamount to a religion in San Diego. That may be so, but with plenty of heretics worried about fish, energy use and expensive water, it might pay to take desalination with a grain of salt. 

This article was made possible with support from the William C. Kenney Watershed Protection Foundation and the Jay Kenney Foundation.