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Meet the Businesses Hoping to Cash in on California's Water Crisis

A lack of water in California means big business for the desalination industry and their lobbyist.

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The International Desalination Association plans to hold conferences this year in Dubai, Algiers, China and Antigua. Global Water Intelligence also convenes seminars around the world. At last year’s conference in Paris, event organizers tried to pay the airfare for a San Diego County Water Authority official to accept an award for public utility of the year.

“The legal departments said they couldn’t do it and don’t have a budget to pay themselves,” said Pankratz, who helped organize the conference.

But officials frequently travel overseas to see existing plants. Last year, Pankratz helped West Basin water officials travel to Australia – paid by the district – to see an ocean desalination plant in action.

“If you want to see a desalination plant that’s operating, you have to travel,” Pankratz said. “Whenever anyone is doing a new plant, the most senior engineers usually take a trip to visit some operating plant to see how it’s working.”

City councilmen sometimes go on trips, too, he said. “Most of the time the city pays for it.”

Adding to the obscure nature of California’s intricate network of water rights, water agency board meetings often operate with little oversight, said Conner Everts, director of the Desal Response Group. In 2004, two members of the West Basin Municipal Water District went to prison for accepting bribes.

Everts said the current board and the larger Metropolitan Water District of Southern California could do more to increase transparency. Projects are often approved, he said, “with little or no public scrutiny with subcommittee policy meetings and board meetings in the middle of the working day.”

The results of lobbying at the Public Utilities Commission and the California Coastal Commission are obvious. In August 2009, the Coastal Commission overruled an administrative law judge in a dispute over what California American Water could charge ratepayers for desalinated water.
A day before the ruling, company lawyers met with commission staff.

“It was a compromise,” said Diana Brooks with the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. “But on the last day before they voted on it, the commissioner changed his version of it, and adopted the settlement the way it was written.”

The settlement gave California American Water, a publicly traded company, authority to potentially quadruple water prices for desalinated water produced by a publicly owned plant.

David Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon with 10 years of experience writing for newspapers. He writes primarily about health care, conservation and the changing world around us.

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