Environmental activist Marco Gonzalez was irked to see the San Diego County Taxpayers Association recently give a Golden Watchdog award to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. Besides arguing that the region should simply use less water, he argues that desalinated seawater is more expensive than imported water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River.

It’s surprising to see an environmentalist prefer imported water over desalinated seawater. Extracting water from the Delta and Colorado River has negative impact on fish and birds, and some of that water is lost on its way to San Diego County through evaporation and seepage.

Commentary - in-story logoNonetheless, Gonzalez is correct that desalinated water is currently more expensive. But he neglects the role that he and his fellow environmentalists played in boosting that cost.

In 2004, Poseidon estimated a $250 million cost to build the plant. When it opened in December 2015, the final construction cost was $1 billion.

Some of that quadrupling of expense resulted from years of delays caused by environmental groups trying to stop the project with lawsuits and other tactics. Construction unions also took advantage of environmental laws and required Poseidon to hire union labor.

Gonzalez compares the cost of desalinated seawater to imported water, which today comprises 75 to 80 percent of the water supply in the San Diego region (down from 90 percent before the Carlsbad Desalination Plant opened). But the desalination plant is part of a larger deliberate plan to reduce dependence on a long-distance water supply system vulnerable to disruption from earthquakes, sabotage, drought or disputes over water rights.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

San Diego County water customers would regard desalinated seawater as a bargain if supplies from the San Joaquin Delta or Colorado River were abruptly cut. They would be praising Poseidon Water and the San Diego County Water Authority for wise planning in diversifying water supply sources.

While criticizing the desalination plant, Gonzalez promotes Pure Water San Diego, a project to recycle wastewater that is otherwise dumped in the Pacific from the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant.

This project may be a nice example of recycling, but it’s no deal for ratepayers. A San Diego Public Utilities Department concept paper recently submitted to the California Water Commission estimates that Pure Water San Diego will cost $3.2 billion to produce 93,000 acre feet of water per year by 2035. That’s $34,409 per acre foot.

Compare that rate with the already operational Carlsbad Desalination Plant, which cost $1 billion and is expected to produce 56,000 acre feet of water per year. That’s $17,857 per acre foot.

There is another factor in water projects that drives costs higher: electricity. Seawater desalination requires more electricity than pumping the same amount of water from the San Joaquin Delta and over the Tehachapi Mountains. And in California, environmental policies are inevitably raising the costs of electricity.

Poseidon Water is trying to reduce that electricity requirement for seawater desalination. In fact, San Diego Gas & Electric recently named Poseidon Water as an “energy champion” for 2016. The award recognizes devices at the desalination plant that save 146 million kWh per year. According to SDG&E, the Carlsbad plant is already operating at 11 percent below the energy consumption guarantees in its agreement with the San Diego County Water Authority. But even as Poseidon reduces the plant’s energy consumption, environmentalists are continually pushing for additional costly state and regional mandates that will ultimately negate any ratepayer savings.

Critics of the more expensive water are a major reason why the water is more expensive. In the end, what matters most for San Diego County ratepayers is that the Carlsbad Desalination Plant is now providing an ample uninterrupted supply of water from a local source. By reducing dependence on imported water, seawater desalination is creating better conditions for economic growth, for job creation and for quality of life.

Kevin Dayton is a research analyst with the California Policy Center. He is collaborating on a report about private investment in water infrastructure projects.

    This article relates to: Opinion, Water

    Written by Opinion

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    Eric Christen
    Eric Christen subscriber

    So the usual band of left-wing suspects chime in like clockwork unhappy that an opinion that runs counter to their pre conceived notions actually is allowed to even exist let alone be published. Soon they’ll be asking the Democrat AG's around America to "investigate" Mr. Dayton and his evil free market group. That is after all how the authoritarian left has always operated.

    So Who Are the Four Usual Old White Suspects Who Commented Negatively on Mr. Dayton's Piece?

    •Joe Geever is California Policy Coordinator for Surfrider Foundation.

    •Don Wood is a “citizen activist” and a Senior Energy Policy Advisor for ‎Pacific Energy Policy Center.

    •Michael Johnson is just a Democrat Party hack who was named California Democratic Party Volunteer of the Year for Region 20. He is involved in the Point Loma Democratic Club, San Diego Progressive Democratic Club, and San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action.

    •Rory Wicks is a San Diego environmental and land-use attorney who has represented Surfrider.

    A few comments point out rightly that dividing the cost of construction by AF of water production for one year has limited value. (Actually they say it's meaningless.) That figure bothers them a lot because it’s a crude yet simple and understandable calculation for comparison purposes that undermines the earlier argument of Gonzalez that Pure Water San Diego is such a deal for taxpayers. The "operational lives" is a red herring because Pure Water San Diego won’t be fully operational until 2035 and Carlsbad Desalination Plant is operational now for 30 years. Litigation is impossible to predict (unless you’re an environmentalist coordinating the lawsuits!) They prefer computer models by academics for which the variables are distorted to come out with the results they want. So consider, again, the sources.

    Lastly it cannot be underestimated the costs that unions piled on to this plant by using their well-worn greenmail (environmental extortion), which all these good lefties would be screaming about were it not someone on their team (outdated and inefficient trade unions who require welfare in the form of a PLA to get work, which is embarrassing as hell) benefiting from it. Instead they sit by and allow the unions to greenmail projects all over the region and state. The PLA alone added at least 20% to this plant so, once again, the left (enviro nuts and labor unions) add a significant amount to the final price tag then whine about it costing so much. Actually it's just the cost of doing business in America's 51st least business friendly state (yes, Puerto Rico beats CA out!).

    We banned PLAs in San Diego and San Diego County no thanks to the votes of these political hacks (Michael, we crushed your party in both of those votes) winning every precinct and demographic (even union households!) because average citizens get that PLAs add to the cost of projects by discriminating against workers. Unfortunately, environmental extortion is still legal and everyone gets to pay the costs, as we see here.

    Michael Johnson
    Michael Johnson subscribermember

    @Eric Christen You have the wrong Michael Johnson, Eric. I'm not a Democratic Party anything. And how is that the word "hack" now means "anyone to the left of me?" 

    Joe Arizona
    Joe Arizona subscriber

    The catch all answer "conserve" just does not address that we need water from many sources. It is ironic to hear from the same environmental and labor union voices that drive cost up and then use high cost to argue against the project. You kill San Onofre and complain the electricity costs are high. The nerve.

    I was at a cocktail party in LA when several super wealthy individuals were discussing their water investments-probably the ones paying you nay sayers.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    These point/counterpoint OpEd/commentaries mostly serve to confirm that what's been said about water in this part of the world for the last few centuries remains true: "In the west, whiskey's for drinking, and water's for fighting."

    The Voice of San Diego website is simply the latest battleground. Cheers!

    Joe Geever
    Joe Geever

    Mr Dayton and the California Policy Center have a right to their opinion. But if they don't know how to calculate the price of water, their opinion on the subject isn't worth much. The cost of construction divided by one year of water production is a meaningless number. I'll bet his report on the benefits of private-public partnership is going to be equally valuable.

    And let's not forget that Poseidon tried to convinced everyone that imported water would soon be more expensive than seawater desal (that was 15 years ago and we now know that the opposite is true). They even offered to sell their product water at the price of imported water -- arguing they would get their losses back and make a profit after those cost "guesstimates" materialized. 

    That was a huge risk. But they assumed that risk in contracts with several local retail water agencies to purchase their desal water at the cost of imported water. Then San Diego County Water Authority stepped in, paid them full price plus a high rate of return on their investment -- in a contract that guaranteed Poseidon's high profits. SDCWA agreed to a "take or pay" contract that subsumed all the existing contracts, took on all the risk, and guaranteed high returns for Poseidon. I'm sure the retail agencies were scratching their heads trying to figure out why the County would promise to pay twice what they already had a contract for.

    A large part of the cost of water is the embedded energy to transport and treat it for potable use. Seawater desal is 40% more energy intensive than water imported from the Delta. As energy costs go up, the cost of desal water goes up disproportionately. The cost curves will never intersect.

    And Mr Gonzalez is right that you always do conservation first. Avoiding large capital investments avoids debt service for future rate payers. And during the recent conservation effort, there was NO associated economic impacts from conserving. Here's a nice study done for public consumption that explains how that works: http://www.allianceforwaterefficiency.org/westminster.aspx

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    I'm not sure that calculating the cost of water produced from various local sources should be done by simply dividing the initial capital cost of each plant by the amount of water it will put out in its first year of operation. That approach provides sky high water cost estimates. Given the fact that each of these local plants will produce clean water for many years, the capital cost of each plant should be divided by the total amount of water they will produce over their operational lives, which would produce far lower estimated water costs for both plants. Those estimates will also be affected by ongoing litigation as well.

    Michael Johnson
    Michael Johnson subscribermember

    The California Policy Center, for whom Mr. Dayton works, has a clear agenda: Get rid of unions and other lefty types like environmentalists. The  use of union labor anywhere just grinds their beans. 

    There is a good reason for the resistance to desalination plants. They also have "a negative impact on fish and birds." They usually wreck the ocean near them. The salt removed from the water has to go somewhere, like back into the ocean. We have a very nice coastline around here, and it's worth making sure that people like the California Policy Center and their sugar daddies from god knows where don't wreck the place in search of a buck. 

    Dayton says the ballooning of the construction price at Carlsbad was due to those who resisted the idea (and insisted on fair wages). Have you ever heard of a construction project anywhere that did not at least double in price after the bid?

    In my opinion, desalinization is a worthy goal. I think it can be done. But if it is going to be done without huge environmental impact, it is never going to be done cheaply, even if we all just get out of the way of the grand corporate plan.

    In the meantime, we can conserve a lot more.

    Rory Wicks
    Rory Wicks

    I question whether Voice of San Diego should characterize an "editorial opinion" of an extremely conservative Republican advocacy group as a factual "news story."  The writer, Kevin Dayton, works for the "California Policy Center."  Look at who makes up the leadership of the California Policy Center and what it advocates for.  The group is used by a number of very conservative Republicans to promote, among other things, projects opposed by respected environmental groups such as the Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club and Heal The Ocean.  Printing such an "op ed" piece as a "factual news article" detrimentally impacts the credibility of Voice of San Diego.

    I've always admired Voice of San Diego.   Printing this "op ed": piece as a factual news article reduces my respect and admiration.

    The "op ed" piece does not discuss at all the facts that every proposed desalination project in California admits its water rates will be similar to those of the Carlsbad Plant -- even without any litigation opposing the proposed desalination project.

    Perhaps in the future Voice of San Diego can tell its readers this is an "op ed" piece; who is writing the "op ed" article; and allow those who disagree equal space.

    Voice of San Diego has been a true blessing for San Diego given the conservative reporting of the Union Tribune.  Voice of San Diego questions both sides of political and environmental issues.   Please continue on its past course.


    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    @Rory Wicks It is properly labeled as an opinion piece and the author's institutional affiliation is noted. The equal space is being provided by VOSD as this is one of a sequence of editorials on the topic. I think the readers enjoy the diversity of views.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    I know the water is expensive, but consider:  We are in a long term drought, we live in a desert, we have limited political influence compared to others in SoCal, the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean, we take it all, we are at the end of the water pipeline.  We should be doing everything we can to become water independent.  This is like buying insurance, it may be expensive, but when you need it you are going to be really, really glad its there.

    We should consider one or two more desal plants for central and south county.  For the doubters, look what Israel has been able to do with desal for their country who is also in a desert and lacks influence in their region.