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Currently, the plant piggybacks off ocean water withdrawn by an adjacent power plant.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.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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: https://sandiego.surfrider.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Joint-SDCWA-Briefer.pdf
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 http://www.waterboards.ca.gov/sandiego/board_info/agendas/2009/may/item11/supp_doc_10.pdf. 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.
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?