Monday, March 27, 2006 | When the Huntington Beach City Council considered permits for a desalination plant earlier this month, 61 residents came to voice opinions. A public hearing there last year ran until 4:45 a.m. The plant’s local permits – the first of many it will need statewide – were ultimately decided by a 4-3 City Council vote.

Clearly, the state’s first major seawater desalination plant was a polarizing issue in the suburban Los Angeles beach community.

It’s poised to be here, too, when the battle is fought in Carlsbad, where another desalination plant is being developed. Between the two proposals, the state would see its ability to turn seawater into drinking water jump nearly 25 times. The two could provide water for 225,000 homes.

While the plans share similarities – both are being developed by Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources Corp. – Huntington’s plan is a few months ahead in a lengthy permitting process, has cleared local opposition and reveals telling glimpses of the challenges to come in Carlsbad.

The two plans have the potential to drastically change how residents in parched Southern California receive their water and cut the region’s reliance on outside sources. Once only the tool of dry and oil-rich Middle Eastern nations, desalination has become increasingly more affordable, although the largest case study in the United States, also developed by Poseidon, has been wrought with problems.

Next month, when the California Coastal Commission reviews the Huntington Beach council decision, environmentalists, developers, politicians and water suppliers throughout California will be keeping a close eye on what happens.

The commission will be listening to appeals from two commissioners and the environmental group Surfrider Foundation, who object to several aspects of the council’s early March project approval.

The commission’s decision – whether to give a deeper look to the appeal or not – will help other interested parties gauge how much resistance to expect from the commission, which is responsible for managing and preserving California’s coast. In the state, the future of the millennia-old idea of turning seawater into drinking water rests in the commission’s hands.

The commission has been openly skeptical of desalination. While some describe it as the wave of the future, critics say it is still too costly, both financially and environmentally.

“It’s a concept,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the watchdog Utility Consumers Action Network, “whose time has not come yet.”

Salty Origins

Aristotle is credited with first conceiving of desalination. Since he first dreamed of consolidating water vapor in the 4th century B.C., it has now become a vital water source in places such as Saudi Arabia, which draws a majority of its tap water from the sea. But desalination has barely caught a toehold in the United States. That’s changing, and Southern California is leading the way, with water agencies throughout the region hoping to diversify their water supplies.

“It does provide a drought-proof supply of a high-quality water,” said Charles Keene, an environmental program manager for the state Department of Water Resources and the former executive officer of a state-led desalination task force. “But it does come with a cost, and it does release the genie from the bottle – it just opens the doors for future growth.”

This isn’t the first time California has considered desalination. When the state was mired in a six-year drought in the early 1990s, thirsty water suppliers studied it. The San Diego County Water Authority considered desalination plants in Carlsbad and the South Bay, but found them too expensive. Santa Barbara built a plant, only to close it to save money after the drought ended.

The technology, once deemed too expensive, has seen its prices slowly drop, spurred by improvements in the enabling membrane technology. (Salt water gets forced through the membranes, letting water through, while trapping salt and other minerals.)

If the bone-dry early 1990s gave birth to desalination in California, the industry is now growing into its adolescence, said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources at the San Diego County Water Authority.

“It definitely is in its early stages,” he said. “We’re going to grow up very quickly in the next few years as these plants start to move through the permitting process. I think we’re into a real learning period.”

Dead Zone

The concept sounds simple. Pull in seawater, filter out the salt, send the drinking water to residents and the brine back to the ocean. Stuck in a drought? No problem – the ocean isn’t going anywhere.

What’s not to love?

A minority of Huntington Beach council members had a host of objections. Mayor Dave Sullivan said he had issues with Poseidon, whose only other major desalination plant has been plagued by problems. Councilwoman Jill Hardy said she worried about the environmental impacts on marine life in the Pacific Ocean. Councilwoman Debbie Cook was concerned the technology was too reliant on energy costs – particularly natural gas – that could make producing water too expensive.

Both Southern California plants are proposed to be built alongside of aging coastal power plants. The power plants draw in millions of gallons of seawater each day to cool the plant, so the intake infrastructure already exists.

But each year the power plants kill billions of organisms – fish, larvae and plankton – when they are sucked in with ocean water. Environmentalists fear the desalination plants would exacerbate damage to marine life, while creating an excuse to keep the decades-old plants open.

“There’s just this dead zone around the facilities, where the life is strained from the ocean,” said David Hogan, director of the Urban Wildlands Program at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The problem could be solved, Hogan said, by requiring desalination plants to pull water from wells dug below the ocean floor, which allow sand to act as a natural filter. But that would cut productivity and raise costs and isn’t being considered at either plant.

Several environmentalists said conservation efforts should first be exhausted, particularly in landscape irrigation, by using “smart” systems that shut off irrigation systems when they recognize it’s going to rain. That could save enough water for 24 million California residents, said Jonas Minton, water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League, a Sacramento-based environmental lobbying coalition.

“In Carlsbad, it seems like they’re turning to the desalination plant first and looking at the alternatives second,” said Joe Geever, Surfrider Foundation’s Southern California regional manager. “There’s a lot of water out there to save.”

But Weinberg said the easy sources of conservation are tapped out. The next steps will take long-term behavioral changes.

“There’s clearly a lot of potential to save water in landscaping,” Weinberg said. “But it’s not enough.”

Troubled History

When Poseidon’s first desalination plant opened to great fanfare in March 2003 in Tampa, Fla., one county commissioner told the St. Petersburg Times, “This is a landmark day for our region.”

But the pioneering plant has become an example of all that can go wrong with desalination. It’s the physical embodiment of the engineering, financial and political challenges that stand between salty seawater and crystal-clear drinking water coming from your tap.

When it began producing water, the $91 million plant was already overdue. Trouble started on that first landmark day. The filtration system clogged easily, and the plant worked sporadically before being shut down in May 2005. It remains offline, and crews are working to have it running by year’s end.

The Tampa plant was fraught with problems. Poseidon hired two contracting companies that lacked experience building desalination plants. Both eventually went bankrupt. Poseidon couldn’t find financing for the project in shaky post-Sept. 11 markets.

While it was under construction, the plant was purchased by Tampa Bay Water, the local water supplier. Poseidon senior vice president Peter MacLaggan cited that as the cause of problems. Tampa Bay Water then made design changes that led to the plant’s trouble, MacLaggan said.

Ken Herd, Tampa Bay Water’s director of operations and facilities, said the plant’s failure was in its core design, and said Poseidon kept key pilot testing data a secret.

Either way, it cost $48 million to fix.

The Tampa project has been so riddled with problems that it’s almost a cliché in California desalination circles. Huntington Beach Mayor David Sullivan cited it as his reason for objecting to Poseidon’s plan. Sullivan asked: If a contractor had only remodeled your neighbor’s kitchen, and didn’t do a good job, would you hire him?

“I’m sure there’s two sides to the story,” Sullivan said. “But I just personally could not get over the fact that they had not successfully completed [a plant].”

So desalination in the United States started with a flop. But Huntington Beach Councilman Keith Bohr said his city has learned lessons from the Tampa experience. And Tampa Bay Water officials don’t hesitate to share the lessons they’ve learned. Herd urges caution when striking fully privatized deals to build desalination plants.

“We are taking this very seriously,” Herd said. “We know that the eyes of the world are upon us and the entire desalination industry is watching this project. There’s a lot at stake.”

Carlsbad Plans

On April 13, negotiators from the San Diego County Water Authority and Poseidon will again sit down to discuss the proposed plant in Carlsbad. They’ve been in and out of talks for four years, trying to address this question: Who will get the water from a Carlsbad desalination plant? The region, or a few individual water districts?

Poseidon has two options. It can build the plant privately and sell the water to a handful of local agencies. The risk is that the coastal commission will resist any effort to privatize seawater, a public resource.

Or the company can continue negotiating with the water authority, and allow the public agency to own the plant, with Poseidon building and operating it.

The paths are moving forward simultaneously. The water authority has also begun studying the feasibility of building a desalination plant at a decommissioned unit at San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station. That study isn’t due until late next year.

“The county water authority is in an awkward situation,” said Shames of the utility watchdog. “You don’t want to go into a negotiation with a water provider when you have no options. Poseidon has locked up one of the jewels in a prime location. … The only leverage the county water authority has right now is time.”

MacLaggan, though, is an optimist. What’s happening now is a small step in a long transition in how water is managed in California, he said. He imagines a time in 50 or 100 years when coastal communities aren’t at all reliant on the Colorado River. Right now, San Diego imports 90 percent of its water from outside sources.

“My view,” he said, “is that while this transition is a little bit of a painful, messy process right now, there’s going to be a time when people look back and say, ‘Why was that such a big deal?’”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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