California Drought Building a better region together, one story at a time

Desal Deal Leaves San Diego With Extra Water in Drought

• With the opening of the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, we’ll have higher bills but more water, which we’ll need if the drought continues.

• But we don’t necessarily need the water this year and will be using the expensive desal water while cheaper water is sent to a reservoir, where some of it will evaporate.

San Diego County water customers are about to see their water bills jump to pay for some of the most expensive water possible. At the same time, cheaper water is about to be set aside, unused, in a reservoir where some of it will evaporate.

After years of fights and hurdles, the Carlsbad Desalination Project is expected to open this fall. But because of a quirk, the region is unlikely to need that desalinated water this year. Yet, the San Diego County Water Authority signed a deal promising that its customers will pay for it. Average water bills will increase by $5 or more.

Despite the drought, the Water Authority expects to have 99 percent of the water it needs to meet customer demands, even if customers don’t take any extra steps to save water.

But customers are required to take big steps to save water. The state Water Resources Control Board, at the direction of the governor, is asking municipal water users to reduce average consumption by 25 percent.

This means San Diego County will have a significant chunk of water on hand that we can’t use this year. That water will be stored for the future at San Vicente Reservoir in the eastern part of San Diego County.

Besides having to cut our use, we will also be getting new water from the Carlsbad desalination plant.

The authority has to buy water from the plant, whether it needs it or not. That’s the deal the authority struck with Poseidon Resources, the $900 million plant’s owner. The authority will buy the company’s desalinated water even as the authority stores other, cheaper water.

The Water Authority expects to have between 50,000 and 80,000 acre feet to store this year in San Vicente because state regulations won’t allow it to be used. An acre foot is one of the big units water officials use when they talk about water – it’s equal to about 325,000 gallons. Carlsbad is expected to produce up to 153 acre feet of water per day.

Poseidon’s desalinated water costs at least twice as much our other water sources. We’ll be paying up to $2,140 to Poseidon for an acre foot of water.

The Water Authority pays the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies about half this region’s water, between $580 and $920 an acre foot, depending on whether the water has been treated enough to make it drinkable. Treated water is more expensive. All the desal water is treated.

Depending on whom I asked, this rather odd situation – buying expensive water, storing cheaper water and having extra water all while in a drought – provoked wildly different reactions.

Supporters of the desal plant – namely Water Authority officials – said it’s important to store water this year and that we will absolutely need desal water in the long term.

Others say the inability to really use the desal water is an immediate indication of an unwise deal with Poseidon.

After all, some of the cheaper water sent to San Vicente will evaporate, meaning we’ll be giving cheap water away to the air while we pay for expensive water drawn from the sea. During the course of a year, about 8 to 10 percent of water in our reservoirs evaporates.

“We are buying desal water to fill reservoirs with high evaporation rates,” said Richard Carson, an economist who studies water policy at the University of California, San Diego.

The Water Authority blames the desal situation on the state.

Keith Lewinger, a member of the Water Authority’s board of directors, used a common refrain from other San Diego officials: Mother Nature created a drought in California, but the state government created the water shortage in San Diego.

He compared San Diego to the ants in Aesop’s Fables, which gather food for winter as the grasshopper idles away the summer days. The ants of San Diego invested in the desalination plant, and the grasshopper is other parts of California that did not do as much.

Now, Lewinger said, the state’s cutbacks are making the grasshopper and the ants both tighten their belt, even though the ants have more water.

Bob Yamada, the incoming director of water resources for the Water Authority, used less colorful language, but said the county has been trying to get the state to give San Diego a break from cuts because it built the desal plant.

If San Diego got such a break, we could then use more water and conserve less, which means maybe lawns would be less brown, cars cleaner and showers longer – but there would also be less water stored in San Vicente in case the drought continues.

Either way, Yamada said, the desalinated water is going to come in handy.

“I think the long-term benefit of adding a drought-proof supply trumps the temporary nature of this regulation,” he said.

Some San Diego water officials have used similar arguments against the state cuts and gone a step further: They argue that by restricting San Diego’s ability to maximize its use of desal water, the state is discouraging investment in things like new desalination plants.

Max Gomberg, state Water Resources Control Board staff scientist, said that argument “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”

A few other regions have tried to make a similar case, arguing they have new supplies of local water that should allow them to be spared cuts. Gomberg said the cuts this year are a statewide insurance policy for next year if the drought continues. The situation is stark across the state: Major water suppliers, including Metropolitan, are pulling water from their reservoirs even as San Diego plans to store water in its own.

So why doesn’t San Diego reduce the amount of water it plans to buy from Metropolitan or sell the water to other water agencies?

Yamada said the county wants to do whatever it can to store water during a drought. Desalinated water is expected to remain more expensive than water from Metropolitan until at least 2027, though it could remain a more expensive source for even longer, until perhaps 2042, according to the County Water Authority.

The Water Authority set up a deal so that Poseidon built the actual treatment plant. But the water authority guaranteed that if Poseidon took that risk, the company would buy at least 48,000 acre feet of water a year.

Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which studies water policy, said San Diego had options that were cheaper than the desalination plant and the county still does. Namely, Gleick argues San Diego should have first focused on conserving more water or building a plant to turn wastewater into drinkable water. Only after that has been done, he said, does desalination make sense for San Diego.

“Over time as you squeeze out inefficiencies and you treat wastewater, your options get fewer and desal looks more attractive,” he said.

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