Carlsbad’s new desalination plant went through years of regulatory review and faced 14 legal challenges from environmental groups before it opened last year. Six months after opening, it’s still facing regulatory hurdles, including one that’ll make the water it produces more expensive.

The plant is also facing claims from regulators that it’s having a larger effect on greenhouse gas emissions than its developers promised, and that the desalination process could be hurting nearby ocean life.

The biggest of these hurdles was long expected by both the plant’s developer, Poseidon Water, and the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys the plant’s water: The plant does not yet get its water directly from the ocean. It needs to modify a key permit to do so.

Currently, the plant piggybacks off ocean water withdrawn by an adjacent power plant. That power plant, the Encina Power Station, uses ocean water to cool itself. The power plant is shutting down by the end of 2017.

The desalination plant will now need its own straw into the ocean. It’s a crucial piece of infrastructure; a desalination plant can’t turn ocean water into drinking water without access to ocean water.

Several environmentalists who filed legal challenges to stop the plant’s construction said the need for a new ocean intake so soon after opening is a bait and switch of sorts. Supporters had always billed the project as “fully permitted.” Now it needs a permit modification within two years of opening just to continue operating.

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“They were fully permitted with temporary permits for a situation that everybody knew would change,” said Julia Chunn-Heer, policy director at the Surfrider Foundation’s San Diego County chapter.

The costs associated with the new intake are already turning out to be more expensive than expected and will raise rates at least slightly across San Diego County.

Back in 2012, when Poseidon and the County Water Authority signed a financing deal that made the plant’s construction possible, they expected the new intake would cost about $23 million, give or take the rate of inflation. Now, largely because of tougher regulations set last year by the State Water Resources Control Board, the new intake is expected to cost about $38 million.

The County Water Authority expects that to result in a 6.5 percent increase in the cost of desalinated water. The plant is already the source of the most expensive water in San Diego. The two other major sources of water here are the Colorado River and Northern California rivers.

The County Water Authority, which buys water from the plant and then re-sells it to smaller water departments across the county, says the desalinated water is worth the price.

“There is a cost for reliability – desalination is the most reliable water supply in our portfolio,” said Bob Yamada, the County Water Authority’s director of water resources.

It is a local supply of water that depends not on fickle rains and snows, but on the vast and mighty Pacific Ocean.

The plant does, however, have to keep contending with mighty forces of another sort: the regulatory agencies of the state of California.

Besides the issue over the new intake, Poseidon has also been in a back-and-forth for several months over the plant’s energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. The energy demands are significant.

The desalination plant uses about 5.1 megawatt hours of electricity to produce the amount of water two households use in a year. For comparison: The average San Diego household uses about 6 megawatt hoursof electricity each year.

Poseidon told regulators almost a decade ago that the water it creates in Carlsbad would help San Diego avoid the need to use water from the State Water Project – the system of canals, pipelines and reservoirs that carries Northern California water to Southern California.

The State Water Project is itself an energy-intensive process. The water, which comes from snow melting in the Sierras, is ushered through the state and pumped up and over the Tehachapi Mountains.

Poseidon implied that by reducing the need for Northern California water, it could be a carbon-neutral plant.

“The project will provide direct, one-to-one replacement of imported water to meet the requirements of the participating water agencies, thus eliminating the need to pump 56,000 acre feet of water into the region,” reads the greenhouse gas reduction plan that Poseidon and the Coastal Commission created. An acre foot is large unit of water, equal to 326,000 gallons of water.

Now, though, staff at the Coastal Commission is concerned Poseidon is failing to uphold its part of the deal and has failed to document any reduction in State Water Project water. Because of that, there’s the same amount of greenhouse gases going into the air from the State Water Project and more greenhouse gases going into the air because of the energy used by the desalination plant. How, the staff wonders, is that carbon-neutral?

The stakes for Poseidon could amount to several hundred thousand dollars a year. That’s roughly what it would cost to buy about 50,000 tons of carbon credits needed to remain a carbon-natural plant in the Coastal Commission staff’s eyes, even if the amount of State Water Project water doesn’t change. If that ends up happening, the company cannot pass those costs along to the County Water Authority or its customers.

This is part of a long-running dispute, dating back to a 2009 attempt by some environmental groups to revoke a key permit for the plant. They argued Poseidon had misled the Coastal Commission about there being a real one-for-one reduction in State Water Project imports. They argued the water would keep coming from Northern California to thirsty Southern California whether the desalination plant was up and running or not.

At the time, the Coastal Commission did not revoke the permit, but that was not the end of it.

“What that left us with is the plan that we’re working with has this inconsistency: It is still saying it is net carbon-neutral but there is this big credit that was intentionally misinforming,” said Tom Luster, a senior staffer at the Coastal Commission.

Scott Maloni, a Poseidon vice president, said Poseidon should get credit for reducing State Water Project imports because the Coastal Commission created a policy eight years ago that said Poseidon should get that credit, regardless of the actual reduction in imported water.

Maloni said the confusion results from the Coastal Commission overstepping its bounds.

“From my perspective this falls under the lessons learned that no good deed goes unpunished,” he said. “We tried to go above and beyond and make an unprecedented voluntary commitment to do something no other water treatment plant in the state is doing.”

Poseidon and the County Water Authority also recently received letters from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board citing the plant for four clean water violations. Three of them were one-time events that a water board staffer, Ben Neil, said seem to have been resolved.

The fourth involves brine released by the plant and its possibly toxic effects on ocean life near the plant. Desalination plants take in ocean water. The water leaves the plant in one of two ways: Some ends up as highly-treated drinking water. Some ends up as a brine full of salt, minerals and other compounds that are byproducts of the desalination process. The brine goes back into the ocean. Environmentalists are concerned the brine is hurting coastal waters and life.

Some tests indicate brine from the plant could diminish the fertility of purple sea urchins. Sea urchins are used by labs as a sort of canary in the coal mine to test how water might affect marine life; if they would become infertile, it’s possible other species may not be able to reproduce, in which case they could die off. There is, however, an ongoing back and forth between Poseidon and the Water Quality Control Board about whether the urchins are being tested in a way that simulates actual conditions near the plant.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the plant’s energy consumption as 5.1 megawatts. The correct measurement is 5.1 megawatt hours of electricity to produce the amount of water two households use in a year.

    This article relates to: Corrections, Science/Environment, Water

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and land use. You can reach him at or 619.550.5665.

    Jorge Serrano
    Jorge Serrano

    There is a similar desalination plant being planned for Rosarito Beach, although it is being billed as the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. 

    It is a private enterprise whose investors are somewhat murky, involving a Caiman Island corporation, one or more capitalists in California, one or more capitalists in Mexico, and a shady cross-border politician. Its environmental impact studies have been equally murky, stating merely that the brine returned to the ocean will not pose a threat to wildlife. Plans include building a pipeline to supply San Diego with cheaper water.

    When all the maquiladoras were built, back in the 1980s, no one worried about the effects on the Tijuana River watershed nor the effluvium that ultimately settled into the estuary in Imperial Beach. Those who benefited from the factories -- the companies in the US and the mangers in Tijuana -- were interested only in getting cheap labor.

    It's good that people are asking about the risks of pumping brine into the ocean at Carlsbad. Shouldn't people in both countries be asking the same questions of Rosarito?

    bgetzel subscriber

    Why are the environmental impacts of the deal. plant such a surprise? Desal plants have been operating in Australia and other countries for years. Didn't the decision makers read reports on their operations?

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    This has all been really obvious for a long time to those paying attention, but they count on most people not paying attention to get these things through.  And they work hard to distort information so the truth isn't obvious until it is too late.

    The path to adequate water supplies has always been pricing water so people have motivation to use it carefully.  And to price it much higher at the top tiers because that's why we need expensive desal water.  Plus reduce fixed fees so bills are based on usage.  Currently my usage is only about 1/3 of my bill.  Yes, there are fixed costs, many of which be attributed building infrastructure and buying desal while in denial about the trend of reduced demand. 

    Finally, yes, encourage smart growth, not sprawl and leapfrog development which increases the cost of infrastructure.

    Ace Hoffman
    Ace Hoffman

    When the plant was being planned, I argued (at public meetings held in Carlsbad about the plan) that "carbon credits" is a sham and if the plant is going to operate in an environmentally-neutral manner, it needs to actually get its electricity from offshore wind, solar, wave energy, tidal energy, or some other renewable, carbon-free energy source.  The failure to distinguish between real carbon-free operation and carbon credits is now coming back to bite us all in the form or higher prices, more global warming, and more polluted air.

    Regarding the toxicity of the outflow, very expensive pipes far out into the ocean with multiple "spargers" along the way to distribute the effluent are needed (like what San Onofre had for their radioactively and thermally polluted outflow, only more effective).  This would result in even higher prices for what is already the most expensive water (except bottled water) around.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    If the water authority had simply evaluated reservoir levels periodically and priced water inversely with those levels, it would have stabilized reservoir levels and therefore we would have achieved water supply reliability even without an expensive desalination plant. The revenue generated could have been used to secure more water supplies upstream, or it could have been used to fix our potholes or lower our taxes.

    It's very unfortunate how the people in charge of spending our money don't understand supply and demand well enough to read a demand curve. This is Econ 101 material, so ignorance is not an excuse.

    Sara_K subscribermember

    This 2012 briefer: “Poseidon Water Purchase Agreement: Private Profit, Public Risk” discussed several issues, including the energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions related to the project and the eventual need to permit the desal plant as a stand-alone facility: 

    It is an insult to San Diego ratepayers that the County Water Authority ignored years of such warnings and executed the “take or pay” contract with Poseidon, guaranteeing the purchase of all produced water, without ever disclosing the impact to our monthly water bills over the years. The negotiations were done in secret, and the ultimate agreement put the bulk of the anticipated uncertainty on us - the ratepayers, while Poseidon’s investors would enjoy resultant higher profits.

    It was expressed in no uncertain terms by some members of the public at CWA meetings that the permit for Poseidon’s Carlsbad Desalination Plant would have to be modified when Encina eventually stopped its operations and the destructive ocean intake would serve only the desal plant. It should be no surprise now. (See, for example, this 2009 letter, beginning page 9 The Regional Board permit issue was known by decision makers for many years.) Poseidon reps refused to discuss publicly at any stage how they expected to fulfil that permit modification obligation, and it was yet another huge failure by the CWA to ignore the eventual fiscal impacts of this.

    Side note: It’s laughable that the San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association continues to “carry water” for profiteering Poseidon execs and the County Water Authority, granting them a “Golden Watchdog” award this year when the opposite is true – both are fleecing the public.

    Founder subscriber

    Those that have control over our water supply have fought long and hard against any other source of potable water! They have also supported any groups that also make things harder to built new potable water capacity.

    If the State of CA is so worried about GHG's then less require drivers to limit their commutes and Developers to built low and low-moderate housing in every new project over 2 units!

    We are being "played" by CA regulators that doing what is best for the Big Utilities instead of the rest if US.

    If potable water is so tight, then let's limit new construction; which will never happen because they rather keep building and creating ever more expensive water.

    BTW: Anybody else notice that the State of CA has stopped giving out eVehicle rebates thanks to Gov. Brown, which is making reaching our GHG's even harder, yet nobody is complaining about that, I wonder why?