Backers of desalination hope Carlsbad plant will disarm critics

Carlsbad desalination plant has a dual purpose: easing water shortage and disarming the technology's critics

For one group of international conventioneers coming to San Diego this summer, the highlight probably won't be the panel discussions or technical exhibits or even the visits to the zoo, SeaWorld or Petco Park.

For the expected 1,500-plus people attending the International Desalination Assn. World Congress, the highlight will be a Sept. 4 tour of the $1-billion desalination plant under construction in Carlsbad.

The plant is touted as the largest desalination project in the Western Hemisphere. The technology being installed, though not altogether new, has been upgraded by experts from an Israeli company. The Israelis will help run the plant and are looking to hire former U.S. Marines to work there.

Thousands of desalination and water recycling plants have been built around the world, with some of the biggest in the Middle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. The Carlsbad plant, set to begin operation by Thanksgiving, is making its debut just as drought has become a crisis across California and the West.

For Poseidon Water, the Boston company building the plant — and for the international desalination industry — it presents an opportunity to try to disprove the criticism that dogs such projects: that they are exorbitantly expensive, hog energy and damage the environment.

"Carlsbad is going to change the way we see water in California for decades," said Peter MacLaggan, a Poseidon Water vice president. "It's not a silver bullet to solve all our water problems, but it's going to be another tool in the toolbox."

Though it might be lost on some of this summer's convention-goers, San Diego has a long history with desalination.

The region took it as a clarion call when, in 1961, President Kennedy declared: "If we could ever, competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater that would be in the long-range interests of humanity [and] really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments."

The federal government built a plant for the Navy on Point Loma. (It was dismantled in 1964 and taken to the Guantanamo Bay naval base when Fidel Castro threatened to cut off its water supply. It operated well into the 1980s.)

General Atomics in La Jolla did pioneering work on developing the membrane technology that cleans salt and other impurities from seawater through a process called reverse osmosis. One of the pioneers, Don Bray, spun off his own company.

It was the beginning of making San Diego County what industry veteran Doug Eisberg calls "the Silicon Valley of desalination." Dozens of companies employ 3,000 workers to provide the delicate, complex membranes needed for the world's plants that specialize in desalination and water reuse.

To officials of the International Desalination Assn., including Eisberg, San Diego "is the epicenter of desalination and water reuse development in the U.S.A. [and] the undisputed birthplace of commercial reverse osmosis."

But the desalination process remains a target of environmental groups, which say it kills fish and creates pollution with the brine left behind after the water is purified.

The Carlsbad plant successfully fought multiple lawsuits in its bid for the necessary permits. Still, future plant proposals, such as the one Poseidon wants to build in Huntington Beach, can expect strong political opposition.

"Carlsbad is the horse that got away. Let's make sure it's not repeated," Joe Geever, former California policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, said at a State Water Resources Control Board meeting recently.

Desalination should be "an option of last resort," Rita Kampalath, science and policy director for Heal the Bay, told the water board.

California has 11 desalination plants — some no longer in use, some used only intermittently — according to the board.

The San Diego County Water Authority is bullish on desalination — but also realistic. The authority has pledged to buy the Carlsbad plant's entire output of water for 30 years; by 2020, desalination is expected to satisfy 7% of the water needs of the county's 3 million residents.

"We are very confident that Carlsbad is going to operate successfully," said Bob Yamada, lead engineer and water resource manager for the county water authority. "We're going to have a world-class facility."

The Carlsbad water will be more expensive than water the county authority buys from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Imperial Irrigation District. The desalination water will boost the monthly bill of the average residential water customer by $5 to $7, San Diego officials predict.

But those same officials insist that even with the higher rates, desalination is a good deal, a way to further decrease the county's reliance on Los Angeles-based MWD and get a supply of water that cannot be imperiled by drought.

County water officials have discussed for years building a desalination plant at Camp Pendleton, north of Carlsbad. Whatever its other attributes, a desalination plant is not a quick fix given the complex design phase, politicking, permitting process, litigation and construction. The Carlsbad plant took 14 years. Add the difficulty of dealing with the federal government, and the process could seem glacial.

Yamada sees the possibility of such a Camp Pendleton plant as "on the long-term planning horizon, post-2030 probably."

The Carlsbad plant is at the Encina Power Station, formerly owned by San Diego Gas & Electric and now part of NRG Energy. By using the same water intake system as the power plant, Poseidon says it will reduce its use of energy. Technology improvements have increased efficiency and helped reduce the per-gallon cost, MacLaggan said.

The water intake will be on the surface rather than far below it. The latter method is preferred by environmentalists, who say it is less harmful to fish. Also the brine created by the desalination process will be distributed closer to shore than at some plants. Poseidon says it has a process to dilute the brine and make it less harmful.

The company also insists it has found ways to reduce the fish kill. State water board members are eager for updates once the plant opens. When the power plant is decommissioned, Poseidon will require a new permit, with critics ready to restate their objections.

But to the International Desalination Assn. conventioneers, some coming from as far away as India, China and the Persian Gulf, the Carlsbad plant represents something bold at a time when boldness is required.

"The Carlsbad desalination plant marks a milestone, an important step in securing California's future and its water supplies," Abdullah Al-Alshaikh, president of the association, wrote in an email from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "The Pacific Ocean is a sustainable water source that won't run dry."

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