Ultimate solution?

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

  • The Encina Power Station in Carlsbad, California, site of the proposed Carlsbad Desalination Project, which would turn saltwater from the Pacific Ocean into drinking water.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • The area where pipes would bring water from the Aqua Hedionda Lagoon into the proposed desalination plant.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • Operating engineer Dan Marler drawing a glass of water from the pilot project

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • Filter for the reverse osmosis process.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • Desalinated water fresh from the plant is pumped back into the lagoon.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • San Dieguito River Park in Del Mar, California, part of Southern California Edison’s mitigation for environmental damage caused by its San Onofre nuclear plant.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • Conner Everts at the jetty where ocean water is drawn into the Encina Power Plant for cooling. Warmer water is returned to the sea.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
  • Carlsbad wouldn’t need a new desalination plant, and the hazards it brings to fisheries, if it would conserve water.

    J. Katarzyna Woronowicz
 

Page 3

"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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...