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Desalination: Panacea for Our Water Crisis or Dangerous Boondoggle?

California is trying to solve its water crisis with a huge push for ocean desalination, but opponents claim its too expensive and dangerous for the environment.

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“The effects are the same if you’re drawing in seawater for desalination or power plants,” said Tom Luster, an analyst with the California Coastal Commission. “You’re killing essentially 100 percent of marine life, larva and fish eggs.”

Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant and another the company plans to build in Huntington Beach call for using the same surface water in-take pipes used by the local power plants there now.

“That just exacerbates the problem in our mind,” said Joe Geever, a spokesman for Surfrider Foundation, which along with other conservation groups has filed appeals and lawsuits against both facilities. “If you’re going to protect marine life, you have to protect it from all of these industrial in-takes.”

The Carlsbad plant would draw about 300 million gallons of seawater per day from a nearby lagoon and produce roughly 50 million gallons of drinkable tap water.

An environmental impact assessment performed by biologists determined the screens would destroy enough marine life equal to 66 acres of ocean productivity. To compensate for the impacts, Poseidon agreed to restore 66 acres of wetlands in the San Diego bay area and spend more than $60 million on carbon offsets.

Ironically, the state order against ocean-cooled power plants will diminish their capacity, industry experts predict, just as desalination is coming on the scene, which requires huge amounts of electricity.

The water sector already accounts for 20 percent of the state’s energy use, and desalination will only make it greater.

Challenging assumptions

Despite the drawbacks, desalination has gained widespread support among California lawmakers and elected water officials who have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Most of the projects would not be possible without tax-exempt bonds and direct subsidies beginning with California’s $3.4 billion Proposition 50 passed in 2002. It provided $50 million to support 48 desalination projects including research and development, pilot projects and feasibility studies from 2004 to 2006. The years following brought increased support as private companies stepped in to build some of the largest public infrastructure projects in the state’s history.

“Desalination is not the solution. But for some agencies it’s part of the solution,” said Paul Shoenberger, general manager of Mesa Consolidated Water in Costa Mesa.  Shoenberger also heads CalDesal, a newly formed pro-desal lobbying group made up of public water agencies and private water companies.

“With water being so critical these days, we shouldn’t be taking any options off the table, and I don’t think we should be pursing only one option,” he said.

According to backers, California faces a looming water crisis that could make the sky-high price of desalinated water today seem like a bargain in as little as 10 years. In fact, dozens of companies, many in the San Diego area, have millions of dollars riding on it.

“They are not just hoping,” said Glenn Pruim, utilities director for Carlsbad Regional Water District, about Poseidon. “They have it locked up in agreements.”

Two-thirds of Southern California tap water and most of the water irrigating California’s rich farmland arrives courtesy of an aqueduct system hundreds of miles long from the Colorado River to the east and the San Joaquin basin in the north. But those reserves are running low, and they threaten endangered species, which could potentially dramatically increase consumer water prices.

California’s population, meanwhile, could reach 60 million by 2050 from around 37 million in 2009, according to the state’s Department of Finance.

“You can ask anyone in the water industry,” said Noelle Collins, spokeswoman for the West Basin Municipal Water District, which supplies water to parts of Los Angeles County. “Everyone has said you can’t conserve your way out of this crisis.”

 
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