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Currently, the plant piggybacks off ocean water withdrawn by an adjacent power plant.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.
“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.