The country’s largest desalination plant is in the ground at Carlsbad and its water is in our pipes, but the debate over whether it was a wise or economical investment continues.

The ability to turn salty ocean water into drinking water creates a dependable water supply for 3 million people in San Diego County. Even without a drought continuing across California, the ability to constantly sip from the ocean seems like an obvious plus.

There are downsides, though: The desalination process is energy-intensive and its water is currently far more expensive than our other water supplies. The San Diego County Water Authority has committed to buying water from the plant’s private developer and owner for three decades, whether the water is needed or not.

Some of the back and forth played out in court – the plant’s developers overcame years of regulatory review and faced 14 legal challenges since 2006 from environmental groups.

Recently, the debate has continued here in our opinion section.

A longtime critic of the Carlsbad plant, environmental attorney Marco Gonzalez, said the plant is an “expensive fraud” that is “horrible for taxpayers” compared with other ways to increase the region’s water supply or efforts to simply save more water.

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

The San Diego County Water Authority, which backed the project and contracts with a private company for the water, has answered this and other criticisms with essentially the same response each time: It’s worth it. The plant, said Water Authority board chairman Mark Weston, is a “major reason why the area is no longer are under steep state-ordered emergency water cutback mandates.”

Kevin Dayton, a research analyst with the California Policy Center, said Gonzalez, other environmentalists and unions played a role in driving up the cost of the plant’s construction. Alternatives to desalination, like turning wastewater into drinking water, “may be a nice example” but they are “no deal.”

There is a reason this is all happening now, besides just good old-fashioned attempts at an I-told-you-so.

A mix of water agencies and private developers are working on at least three other desalination projects in the region.

The perceived success or failure of the Carlsbad plant could tip the scales for those projects, which will face regulatory hurdles and legal challenges of their own.

The furthest along is a desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach. There, Poseidon, the developer of the San Diego plant, is hoping to build another plant and enter into another public-private partnership with the Orange County Water District. That project is now before the California Coastal Commission and a few other regulatory agencies.

Next in line is a desalination plant in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, that could provide some water to San Diego through an international pipeline.

The Otay Water District has been working on that project for a while. Because the plant would be in Mexico, it is mostly beyond the reach of legal challenges from American environmental groups. Except that two – Imperial Beach-based Wildcoast and San Diego County’s Surfrider chapter – have seized on the federal permit that would be needed for the pipeline to bring the water into the United States. They argued in a recent letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that Mexico should focus on preventing flows of sewage into the ocean before it worries about treating ocean water.

Further out and more speculative is a desalination project being considered for Camp Pendleton, which the County Water Authority plans to spend at least $3.8 million over the next two years studying.

Members of the Water Authority’s board from the city of San Diego have expressed concern about the project because the city is working on a $3.2 billion drinking water project of its own and doesn’t want city customers to be hit with two major expenses at once. The city’s project would turn sewage water into drinking water.

Other members of the Water Authority’s board are looking at the possibility of more desalinated water, though, because of events to San Diego’s north. The Water Authority has been skeptical of a $15 billion project to build a pair of tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to more reliably deliver water to Southern California from Northern California.

The project would make water deliveries more reliable but not necessarily increase the amount of water available to Southern Californians.

So, some San Diego water officials wonder, why not just build more desalination plants and avoid the whims of weather entirely?

Unlike Northern California water that depends on snowfall and rain, with desalinated water, “we know we’d get it,” said Tom Kennedy, the general manager of the Rainbow Municipal Water District and a member of the Water Authority board. “That’s what I want to keep telling people, that price is going to go up by billions – but do you want water for that price?”

The cost of the tunnel project is far from final and who would pay for what is uncertain.

Southern California has repeatedly run up against perceived limits to its growth. First Los Angeles built an aqueduct to get water from the Eastern Sierras. Then Los Angeles and other Southern California water agencies, including eventually San Diego, banded together to get water from the Colorado River. Then the state built the State Water Project through the Central Valley to bring Northern California water to Southern California.

Now, droughts in California and the Colorado River basin, as well as environmental regulations and mandates, have reduced the flows from all three sources.

Over time, Southern Californians have learned to use water less wantonly. In San Diego, for instance, less water is used now than in 1990, although there are more people. Officials are banking on an even more water-frugal future than they once expected.

Yet the specter of an ongoing drought and a growing population push water agencies to continue trying to develop new water supplies.

Current desalination technology does not seem likely to on its own solve Southern California’s water problems.

In a recent interview with the Sacramento Bee, Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said water agencies would have to “basically industrialize the whole coast” if they wanted to replace the water they get from Northern California with desalinated water.

The Water Authority buys water from Metropolitan, the region’s largest water supplier, and then resells that water to local water agencies, like the city of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department.

Referring to the whole Metropolitan service area, which stretches from Oxnard to Otay, Kightlinger said agencies would have to build 30 desalination plants of Carlsbad’s size to be able to replace Northern California water. The Carlsbad plant cost about $1 billion to build; the water from it is expected to cost about $2 billion more over the next three decades.

Kightlinger was in Sacramento to defend the tunnel project from suspicious Northern Californians.

“It isn’t physically or fiscally feasible or practicable to just sort of say we’re going to roll off one system all onto another technology – they all have to be built and they all have to complement each other,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a photo caption that misspelled Chris Stiedemann. 

    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.

    mike johnson
    mike johnson subscriber

    Maybe desal should wait for fussion. I am guessing electricity cost is high percentage of clean water. Maybe the truck size fussion that are in design will happen.  Too bad it will be probably 20 years.

    Jorge Serrano
    Jorge Serrano

    One sentence stood out from this article. " Current desalination technology does not seem likely to on its own solve Southern California’s water problems."

    Now that is one spectacularly split infinitive!

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    If you look at water usage County wide you will see that agriculture and industrial are significant water users.  For those applications fully treated water may not be necessary, this might be a good application for recycled water.  Part of this is already being done.  If you look at the construction going on near the freeways you will see 'purple pipe' crews installing recycled water pipelines for watering the medians.  Besides, every gallon of recycled water we use means one less gallon of polluted water going into the ocean.  The same ocean we are going to tap for our Desal plants.

    Conservation plays a part, having thirsty Midwest plants in your yard, that is located in a desert, is probably not a good use of what will be expensive water.

    As others have noted, we cannot have one technology supply our entire water needs.  We have to have an integrated system that uses imported water, local water, recycle, conservation, desal, and other, to supply our growing needs.  Some sources will be more expensive than others, and long range planning is critical in order to maintain our lifestyle at a reasonable cost.  What is certain, is that we cannot say "NO" to anything different.

    Eric Christen
    Eric Christen subscriber

    Want to help make this form of water creation less expensive? Quit allowing labor unions to use the CQA process to hold up the project until the owner "agrees" to a union-only Project Labor Agreement (PLA) to build it. 20% savings on the cost to build right there.

    Oh, and arrest all self appointed "enviromentalists". Significant savings there too, and a better America.

    Bruce Higgins
    Bruce Higgins subscriber

    Look, we live in a desert, there is not enough natural water to support even 1/10th of our population.  Drought is a fact of life in the West.  Even if the current one ended today, another would occur within a decade.  Elsewhere in this Morning's Report is a call for adding at least 15,000 housing units to San Diego.  We are at the end of the water supply pipeline and the MWA has proven that it is no friend of San Diego.  The lack of affordable water is already effecting our region, drive up to Temecula and look at the bare hillsides where farmers have ripped out Avocado groves due to lack of water.

    As others in the comment section have pointed out, Desal is not new technology and is in common use worldwide.

    All of the technologies mentioned will have to play a part in our region wide water supply, including recycle.  We simply can't afford to dump millions of gallons a day of water into the ocean.  Due to the regulatory approval process and the common practice of 'Greenmail' it takes 10 - 20 years to bring a new water supply project on line.  We can't wait for our supplies to get tight before we start building a new plant.  The water produced now is expensive, in 10 years it will not be.

    Unless we want others dictating our lifestyle and costs, we must continue to reduce our dependence in imported water.  What we have done so far is a step in the right direction; it needs to continue. 

    Chris Wood
    Chris Wood subscriber

    “…Further out and more speculative is a desalination project being considered for Camp Pendleton, which the County Water Authority plans to spend at least $3.8 million over the next two years studying…….Members of the Water Authority’s board from the city of San Diego have expressed concern about the project because the city is working on a $3.2 billion drinking water project of its own and doesn’t want city customers to be hit with two major expenses at once. The city’s project would turn sewage water into drinking water….”

    Comment:  The $3.2 billion dollar government program dwarfs the Camp Pendleton program 842:1. The projects are not in the same league so the description of two “major” expenses is incorrect. Probably the government program should be cancelled to avoid major expenses for consumers.  Also after hearing about Flint Michigan’s water problems, would not trust government to have the knowledge to filter all industrial and biological contaminants out of sewage.

    NorthParkAndRobinson subscriber

    @Chris Wood $3.8 million is just for a project study, not for the project itself. The proposed Camp Pendleton desal project would produce 100-150 million gallons per day, which is 2-3x the size of the Carlsbad plant, so expect it to cost in the range of $2-3 billion. More info is at the bottom of this page.

    Mind you, I'm all for building additional desal facilities (along with the recycled wastewater efforts of Pure Water). Just don't kid yourself that it's gonna be cheap.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Sean M You using a source from Feb. 2013?  If the Westlands are hurting, why are farmers planting more almonds?

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    It is a challenge to find articles stating how much fresh water is being pumped from reservoirs into the ocean very year. It is my understanding is that the state started conflating water pumped from reservoirs with all rainwater runoff in 2015 or 2014. The 800k acre feet cited as pumped from reservoirs is about what the city of Los Angeles uses annually, the Carlsbad plant will produce 56k acre feet.

    Some farmers have guaranteed water rights, others do not.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Sean M And sometimes downstream users have water rights, so the "release for fish" is incidental, the water has to be released anyway.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    You make a fair point about incidental releases of water for downstream users, I concede that there could be other reasons than fish preservation to release water from reservoirs. Hopefully an enterprising reporter can drill down into the sub characterizations of the state's "environmental" water use category.

    However, i think it is safe to say nobody is "using" the clean freshwater that is being pulsed into the ocean and it is ironic for the state to build desal plants while it pumps fresh water into the ocean.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    So the Carlsbad desal plant is still “controverasial”?  Marco Gonzalez and his band of nay sayers are simply modern-day “luddites”, people who instinctively oppose technological progress to protect the status quo which, in this case, is excessive reliance on questionable and untrustworthy sources.  Watch them attempt a monkey wrench when major recycling gets going big time.  Maybe they will enlist Susan Golding and her “toilet to tap” pitch.  

    For crying out loud, over 100 countries rely on desalination for a reliable supply of potable water including many in the middle east such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and, most notably Israel, which has the most highly developed technology.  An Israeli company was deeply involved in the Carlsbad plant, and that country is considered a world leader, along with, you guessed it, San Diego.

    We’re not talking about brand new technology here, as we are, e.g., with many solar power applications.  Medium to large ships have used reverse osmosis desalination for decades; all the San Diego long range sport fishing boats make their own water and have for a long times.  

    As someone pointed out in another article, much of the cost of the Carlbad plant can be traced to governmental actions and lawsuits triggered by opposition groups waving the “environmental”  banner.  Tales of increased salinity in the ocean are clearly absurd, yet such nonsense persists, along with the so-called danger to marine life.

    Let this nonsense go and lets concentrate on reasonable self-sufficiency instead of being totally reliant on imported water, whether it be from Northern California, the Colorado river or elsewhere.

    Bill Stoops
    Bill Stoops

    @Bill Bradshaw Precisely.  Nothing I can add to Mr. Bradshaw's complete response, other than the utter nonsense about energy intense desalination as an issue.  Thanks to private capital and technology, the US is simply awash in fossil fuels suitable for electricity generation.  The electrical power is abundant.  Of course, the same folks that detest desalination will detest merely generating electrical power in a reliable and cost effective manner.