Clearing the air about desalination

Environmental groups challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant scrutinize the project because as proposed it’s the region’s most expensive and energy intensive water supply option. As one of the environmental groups leading the charge in challenging the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, we’re clearing the air about a few misconceptions.

Truth #1 Our cases have merit.

Procedural deficiencies at every reviewing agency have marred the approval process for the plant. While some suggest we are engaging in superfluous lawsuits, this desalination plant will be the largest in the western hemisphere and may set precedent for all other projects. We must ensure it is as protective of our environment as possible. Yet, our regulatory agencies have taken an “approve first, ask questions later” approach that could lead to disastrous consequences.

Our efforts, and those of our partner organizations, have already improved the project dramatically by ensuring carbon offsets and wetlands mitigation to offset some impacts from the proposed project.

Truth # 2 We don’t oppose desalination.

We support a comprehensive water policy – prioritizing how we get and use our water based on cost, environmental and energy impacts, and reliability. First, we need to exhaust conservation and water efficiency efforts. After the City of San Diego instituted mandatory water use restrictions last year, outside water use dropped 13 percent.  In a county where nearly 50 percent of our water goes to residential use (60% of that for landscape irrigation), conservation can provide huge savings.

Second, we need to aggressively pursue water reuse. The City of San Diego is currently exploring Indirect Potable Reuse, which recycles wastewater to drinking water standards above that of our current supplies. Rainwater harvesting, grey water and non-potable water reclamation provide other opportunities to access hundreds of millions of gallons of recycled water daily.

Both conservation and reuse are cheaper, more energy efficient than desalination and can dramatically reduce ocean pollution without killing fish in the process.

Truth # 3 Desalination is the most expensive way to enhance local water supplies.

Conservation saves consumers money by reducing water and energy bills. Augmenting local reservoirs with recycled water uses the same treatment technologies as desalination but at 40 percent of the cost. And while Poseidon continues to claim on its website that its project will be developed at no expense to taxpayers, the truth is the project will receive $350 million over the next 25 years in public Metropolitan Water District subsidies and has a pending $530 million request in tax-free Private Activity Bonds to finance the project.

Truth # 4 Desalination is also the most energy intensive water option for San Diego.

Estimates show that 19 percent of California’s energy usage is for the treatment, movement and delivery of water. Between 3 and 5 percent of the state’s energy is used simply to move water from northern to Southern California, but desalination requires more. It also uses one third more energy than recycling wastewater.

Truth #5 If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

We’ve been asked to stand aside and support public opinion. However few important battles (civil rights, environmental protection, etc.) have been won without taking unpopular positions. The project’s popularity is based on the allure of a seemingly inexhaustible ocean resource and the small fortune Poseidon has paid in public relations and lobbying efforts to promise everything to everybody: for San Diegans, an endless supply of cheap water; for taxpayer/consumer groups, a guarantee of no subsidies; for organized labor, good union jobs; and for environmental groups, full environmental mitigation (the company claims the plant will be a net benefit for wetlands and ocean habitat). Poseidon is San Diego’s real-life Santa Claus!

So, if you are asking yourself, “how does this add up?” you’re ahead of the folks that have approved the project to date. A better question may be, “why did so many appointed officials approve this project (almost always overruling staff recommendations) without asking these tough questions in the face of such obvious contradictions?”

This is the question we are trying to resolve through our challenges.

We all want the same thing for our region—a dependable, affordable and sustainable water supply. Rather than make decisions in a crisis, we’d like to see our region make strategic decisions that protect our citizens and environment from unnecessary costs and harm. That’s why we need to develop a more thoughtful, comprehensive water policy for the region that prioritizes lower-cost, lower-impact alternatives like conservation and efficiency and reclamation. Desalination should be a last resort in our water portfolio.

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6 Responses for Clearing the air about desalination

  1. al says:

    apparently your cases do not have merit (# 1 above) as decided by the recent court decision. And apparently you do oppose desal as part of a comprehensive water plan. So why do you favor so highly a ‘toilet to tap’ process that has been rejected by voters so often before???? Why should I continue to give money to CoastKeepers?

  2. Jamie Ortiz says:

    Thank you for reading our blog. You’re correct that we think our region should prioritize other means of water supply before turning to desalination. Water conservation would be our top priority for the region. We favor indirect potable reuse, or the misnomer “toilet to tap,” because it’s the same purification process as desal, but less energy intensive, which means less expensive. It doesn’t make sense to dump our treated wastewater into our ocean (which we currently do) just to mix it with salt water and THEN run it through a desalination process. Why not capture that water before mixing it with salt water and purify it to augment our drinking reservoirs? Only after we’ve exhausted these methods—conservation, efficiency and reuse—would we consider desalination an option.

    Thanks,
    San Diego Coastkeeper

  3. al wanamaker says:

    I don’t understand. If reverse osmosis is still necessary in treating human waste water, how is it ‘less energy intensive’ vs. desal of salt water? what information are we missing here?

  4. Jamie Ortiz says:

    That’s a good question, and with a quick search I couldn’t find the scientific explanation. The reports and science that we work with all talk about this extra energy required to remove salt from water, but don’t explain exactly why. Here are a few resources that might help you understand:

    http://www.livescience.com/environment/070625_desalination_membranes.html

    http://www.voiceofsandiego.org/peoplespost/essaycontest/article_d2b411e0-7afd-11df-8f50-001cc4c03286.html

    And the folks at the City of San Diego involved in the IPR demonstration project maybe able to help explain.

    I hope this helps.

    – San Diego Coastkeeper

  5. al wanamaker says:

    apparently, not many of your members are as interested in your approach as you think they are. perhaps your organization is out of touch with them? why not ask if they’re in favor of continued investment to insure a stable supply of water for our region. adding desal plants all the way up to the Canadian border would insure water for the western half of the US. Cost? Sure, expensive. But how much will water cost when the supply is threatened???

  6. Katelyn says:

    Here are a couple of examples of communities that chose desalination and felt the cost effects.

    Tampa Bay has the nation’s largest desalination plant, and felt the cost of energy and chemicals required for the plant’s output. Check out what the St. Petersburg Times says about it at http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/tampa-bay-water-wants-to-increase-rates-8-percent/1080875

    Likewise, some parts of Australia are turning to desalination as a source for water, which some taxpayers are calling a “big waste of money,” according to the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/world/asia/11water.html?_r=1

    Finally, for more information about the costs (both material and nonmaterial), see what the Pacific Institute has to say about desalination http://www.pacinst.org/reports/desalination/

    Both conservation and recycling are great methods to ensure clean water for San Diegans while keeping costs low for taxpayers and our environment. Desalination may seem like a good idea, but the costs, monetary, environmental, and power-use alike, outweigh the possible benefits.