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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.

For the scores of businesses in Southern California already supplying desalination equipment around the globe, California’s impending water crisis spells opportunity.

An estimated 3,000 people work for companies in the San Diego area supplying equipment or logistical support for desalination plants, earning the industry upwards of $350 million in annual revenues.

A key element of their business also supplies facilities that re-use and recycle water using similar technology including the membranes that make up the heart of any ocean desalination plant.

“It’s a big industry,” said Tom Pankratz, who writes about desalination for Global Water Report and consults for various water agencies. “A lot of companies that make stuff for desalination plants also make stuff for power plants and automobile plants. There are a lot of major multi-national corporations that have desalination subsidiaries.”

Some of the biggest companies include General Electric, Dow Chemical, Acciona Aqua, Toray Membrane, Veolia Water Solutions and Hydronautics.

About 20 ocean desalination plants up and down the cost of California – most in the early planning stages – have stirred debate over whether adopting such an expensive technology with large environmental impacts is worth it.

Most of the world’s 2,000 desalination plants are currently located in the Middle East where water is in short supply but energy is cheap. In California, an estimated 40 percent of the cost of desalination is energy to run the plant.

Lobbying by companies that stand to gain financially from desalination has helped earn widespread support from California lawmakers, including strong backing from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2007, Schwarzenegger aligned with a group of nearly two-dozen lawmakers – local and statewide – supporting a proposed plant in Carlsbad by investor-owned Poseidon Resources. In a signed letter they urged the California Coastal Commission to approve the Poseidon project “on its first opportunity.”

In November of that year, the commission voted 9-to-3 in favor of the project even though Commission staff said Poseidon failed to provide complete information.

“Poseidon is very well connected,” said Glenn Pruim, Carlsbad public works director. “That’s one thing they’ve done very well is to make contacts in the industry whether it be politically or legally. They’ve been very successful in fighting off lawsuits against their project.”

In 2008, executive director of the California Energy Commission, Melissa Jones, abruptly changed positions on the Carlsbad project. First she wrote to the Coastal Commission that the project contained “several fundamental errors.” Eleven days later, Jones wrote to retract her comments. She said she had met with Poseidon representatives and concluded “the project and the plan for mitigation are laudable.”

Proposed desalination plants must also win approval from city and county governments as well as the Public Utilities Commission in the case of investor-owned utilities. First and foremost, however, desalination must win the nod from water agency officials, which, in large part, they have succeeded in doing.

A group of California water companies and public agencies formed the non-profit CalDesal last year to educate and lobby for desalination. So far the group has collected around $100,000 in membership dues, said Paul Shoenberger, general manager of Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa. The group recently hired as executive director Ron Davis, former legislative director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

“Our main purpose is to promote environmentally friendly desalination in California,” Shoenberger said.

The desalination message also reaches water officials through sponsored conferences, such as the annual ACWA meeting. Public records indicate today’s West Basin board members attend annual conferences of the New Water Supply Coalition, which lobbies nationally for desalination, and the American Membrane Technology Association, representing companies integral to desalination plants.

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