Tuesday, May 31, 2005 | Here’s the dilemma – half of San Diego County’s population lives less than 10 miles from the largest body of water on Earth, yet we import 90 percent of our drinking water.

Excessive dependence on imported water potentially puts our economic prosperity at risk. Diversifying the sources of our drinking water is key to meeting the needs of a growing population, and attracting and retaining industries such as biotech, which provide high-paying jobs.

The Pacific Ocean is not yet a source of drinking water in Southern California. But that will soon change, thanks to an agreement reached last year between the City of Carlsbad and Poseidon Resources Corporation. In 2008, California’s first major seawater desalination plant will come on line, delivering 50 million gallons of high-quality drinking water per day.

The City of Carlsbad has released an environmental impact report for the proposed project that concluded that desalinating water on the Carlsbad coast would not significantly harm the marine environment.

This will mark the dawn of a new day not just for San Diego County, but also for coastal communities statewide.

Why desalination and why now?

The concept is not new. In fact, in ancient times, Greek sailors purified seawater by evaporation.

Today, desalination is used in more than 120 countries. More than 21,000 desalination plants produce in excess of 3.5 billion gallons of drinking water a day. Capacity has increased exponentially over the past 30 years.

Until recently, it was cheaper to import water from Northern California or the Colorado River than to desalinate seawater. Dramatic improvements in technology, mostly in the last decade, have changed that.

Under the agreement signed with the City of Carlsbad, Poseidon will deliver water at a price guaranteed not to exceed the cost of imported water.

Why a public-private partnership?

As the partnership is structured, Poseidon will assume all upfront risks of permitting and approval, financing and construction, and the plant’s operations. Those entail no small degree of risk and cost. Poseidon has already invested more than six years and millions of dollars advancing the Carlsbad project.

It will take another year or so to obtain the permits, including approval from the California Coastal Commission, and two years to construct the plant.

Carlsbad, in turn, has entered into a 30-year water purchase agreement.

What will Carlsbad get? Guaranteed quantity, quality, reliability and price for a drought-proof supply of water.

What will the region get? Carlsbad switching to desalinated water as its primary water supply will translate to a 3.5 percent reduction in the demand on the regional water supply system and an overall improvement in regional water supply reliability.

Collateral regional benefits

That is because this region is “the Silicon Valley of the desal industry.” General Atomics pioneered the development of reverse osmosis technology in the 1960s that spurred San Diego County to become the world leader in the desalination industry, and many of the crucial advances have been developed here. This homegrown industry now employs 2,500 people, generates $200 million-plus in annual revenues, and claims almost half of the international market share for products and services.

In fact, the real question is not why desalination, why now and why through a public-private partnership. The real question is why not?

Thanks to the City of Carlsbad, that question is about to be answered.


Peter M. MacLaggan is senior vice president of Poseidon Resources Corporation, an international leader in water and wastewater public-private partnerships.

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