People need water to live. We drink it, we clean with it, and it carries away our dead goldfish.

A complex network of pumps, canals, and pipelines hundreds of miles long keep our little civilization by the sea alive.

Very few people understand that water system. Those who do live with a managed anxiety. They know that, should it fall apart, our entire economy will go down with it.


If You Value This Service, Please Donate Today

 Learn more about member benefits

For decades, that fear has provoked San Diegans to look longingly at the sea. We’ve got a lot of ocean — could we drink it?

We’re about to find out.

San Diego will likely soon agree to buy water from a private company. That company, Poseidon Resources, is going to build a desalination plant at Carlsbad’s Encina Power Station. It has all the permits. It just needs the money.

Should we give it to them? Is it a good deal?

The San Diego County Water Authority estimates the deal will cost average San Diegans an extra $5 to $7 a month. Poseidon is building the facility itself and will have to deliver the water. If all goes well, it will start pumping water — up to our standards — and we’ll start buying it at a set price.

Unfortunately, getting the salt out of salt water is expensive. It takes massive amounts of energy. It’s actually the most expensive source of water on the table.

Its saving grace, however, may be the future. You see, importing our water is risky too. Global climate change and thirsty Arizonans are among the threats to our supply.

Lynn Reaser and San Diego’s Equinox Center project the cost of importing water over the next 20 years will rise 6.7 percent per year. That’s about a 50 percent faster rise than the cost of desalination.

So, taking the salt out of seawater may be an investment that pays off over time. But what do we get out of that investment now? The water authority says we get security. If we want a more reliable water future, we have to pay for it.

This new source of water would make up about 7 percent of San Diego’s water portfolio. That’s hardly transformative,but it is a lot of water — enough for about 143,000 homes a year.

But how does it compare to other options?

One of those options, for example, is part of a potential solution to an old problem. The city of San Diego does not currently treat its sewage up to standards. The federal government is likely going to require the city to address this, which could prompt a deal that includes recycling this wastewater into potable drinking water.

Recycling water is called indirect potable reuse, or IPR. And the city is slowly inching toward approving it.

Proponents of this effort, however, are worried that if this desalination deal eats up too much of people’s water bills, residents won’t support the extra cost IPR might add. And if they don’t support IPR, then what will the city do about all the sewage it’s dumping in the ocean without being properly treated?

Then there’s conservation. The Equinox Center found that 55 percent of San Diego’s water use goes to landscape watering.

Yep, our lawns.

“Aggressive conservation plus IPR equals a lot of problems solved,” says Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney.

The water authority believes both water recycling and desalination are crucial.

“We feel very strongly that both are necessary and have a place,” says deputy general manager Sandy Kerl.

They may both have a place in our hearts and minds, but the question is whether we have space on our water bills.

This column also ran in the December 2012 issue of San Diego Magazine.

I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):

Follow @voiceofsandiego

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

    This article relates to: Economy, Government, News, Opinion

    Written by Scott Lewis

    I'm Scott Lewis, the editor in chief of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

    19 comments
    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    Thank you Carlsbad for being a leader in this area especially former Mayor Bud Lewis who had a vision and refused to give up. As with much of technology as it begins working and gains interest costs will come down and processes will improve. I am willing to pay a little extra each month to be in control of a reliable source of this precious resource, 'turn on the tap . . .'

    batvette
    batvette

    Yay! Agreed though we'll be labelled as racists for it.

    John Lucier
    John Lucier subscriber

    Yay! Agreed though we'll be labelled as racists for it.

    John Lucier
    John Lucier subscriber

    if you want to drink treated OPP go ahead!

    batvette
    batvette

    if you want to drink treated OPP go ahead!

    paul savage
    paul savage subscriber

    Desal at current pricing is way too dear. There are a myriad of alternatives that are more 'ratepayer' friendly, for instance, ground water storage. Seems to me the ratepayers would be better served by having the water authority increase their holding in the ground water storage project and in five years review and see if desal has become more reasonable in cost and then decide to go ahead. Currently about 184,000 acre feet of storage available as I understand.

    paulsavage1
    paulsavage1

    Desal at current pricing is way too dear. There are a myriad of alternatives that are more 'ratepayer' friendly, for instance, ground water storage. Seems to me the ratepayers would be better served by having the water authority increase their holding in the ground water storage project and in five years review and see if desal has become more reasonable in cost and then decide to go ahead. Currently about 184,000 acre feet of storage available as I understand.

    susanf
    susanf

    and semi-aridity creates potable water? whatever.

    susanf
    susanf subscribermember

    and semi-aridity creates potable water? whatever.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    The big issue here is that CWA is pushing the desal water purchase agreement because it would create a new water supply that CWA would control, and "new" water which CWA can sell to its member agencies by fiat. On the other hand, if the City of San Diego fully implements IPR, it would be repurfying and reusing formerly imported water it already bought from MWD and CWA, which could allow the city to substantially reduce the amount it pays to CWA for more imported water. CWA is trying to push the desal agreement though now in order to force the costs onto the City of San Diego and its other member agencies before IPR would reduce the regional market for its imported or desalinized water supplies.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    The big issue here is that CWA is pushing the desal water purchase agreement because it would create a new water supply that CWA would control, and "new" water which CWA can sell to its member agencies by fiat. On the other hand, if the City of San Diego fully implements IPR, it would be repurfying and reusing formerly imported water it already bought from MWD and CWA, which could allow the city to substantially reduce the amount it pays to CWA for more imported water. CWA is trying to push the desal agreement though now in order to force the costs onto the City of San Diego and its other member agencies before IPR would reduce the regional market for its imported or desalinized water supplies.

    Richard Fritz
    Richard Fritz subscriber

    I'll drink it as long as the City of San Diego doesn't pollute it with the toxic waste from ALCOA otherwise known as Flouride!

    dd593
    dd593

    I'll drink it as long as the City of San Diego doesn't pollute it with the toxic waste from ALCOA otherwise known as Flouride!

    Richard Ross
    Richard Ross subscribermember

    We are taking water away from crop growing farmers which is increasing the price of food. We need to halt imigration otherwise we will begin to look like those starving South Africans. We also need to change our law so that a pregnant illegal imigrant or one on a visa cannot declare her child as a citizen. This isn't the year 1780...wake up! This sounds harsh but it is dealing with reality.

    Activist
    Activist

    We are taking water away from crop growing farmers which is increasing the price of food. We need to halt imigration otherwise we will begin to look like those starving South Africans. We also need to change our law so that a pregnant illegal imigrant or one on a visa cannot declare her child as a citizen. This isn't the year 1780...wake up! This sounds harsh but it is dealing with reality.

    David Hall
    David Hall subscriber

    So yes, those of us who understand climate will deny that "San Diego is a desert".

    sdguy
    sdguy

    So yes, those of us who understand climate will deny that "San Diego is a desert".

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    ery expensive desal is. I suspect that the fed (or the threat of the fed) is going to force the issue and that IPR will happen. But desal will happen sooner because the water agencies support it, and the public is not engaged enough to evaluate the issues. The real answer is conservation, but unless the people who want thirsty landscaping or who waste water with inefficient irrigation pay the full cost for it, including infrastructure cost, this is not going to happen. And don't think bills will go down if you conserve water. They won't.

    myearth
    myearth

    ery expensive desal is. I suspect that the fed (or the threat of the fed) is going to force the issue and that IPR will happen. But desal will happen sooner because the water agencies support it, and the public is not engaged enough to evaluate the issues. The real answer is conservation, but unless the people who want thirsty landscaping or who waste water with inefficient irrigation pay the full cost for it, including infrastructure cost, this is not going to happen. And don't think bills will go down if you conserve water. They won't.