Friday, May 05, 2006 | Talk about a love fest. Carlsbad’s planning commission couldn’t say enough nice things about the proposed desalination plant they approved unanimously Wednesday night – the first formal approval of using ocean the a source of drinking water source in San Diego County.

Commissioners didn’t just approve Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources Corp.’s plan to build a plant to convert 50 million gallons of seawater into drinking water each day, a decision with the potential to drastically change how this parched region gets its water.

They gushed. A sample of the commissioners’ comments:

Frank Whitton: “I totally support this project. All pertinent questions have been answered. I think it’s a great thing.”

Jeff Segall: “It is a brilliant project. We’re lucky to live in Carlsbad. Poseidon, they’ve been an excellent corporate citizen. If they continue to move forward with this project in the way they embrace this community, I think we’re lucky.”

Courtney Heineman: “I think the future’s here.”

Quite a different scene from Poseidon’s other Southern California desalination project, proposed 60 miles north in Huntington Beach, a suburban Los Angeles beach community. When the City Council considered Poseidon’s necessary permits there in March, 61 residents came to speak. One public hearing lasted until 4:45 a.m. In Carlsbad, 18 spoke – many wore blue buttons that read: “got desal?” – and commissioners were finished by 10:30 p.m.

“The problem is a lack of local supply,” said Eric Larson, a Carlsbad resident and executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “No person in this room is drawing water from wells in their backyard. It’s time again for bold action and forward thinking.”

Just three people were opposed to the plan. Two were from environmental organizations, the Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation. They urged the commission to first look to conservation, not desalination, as a better way to address regional water needs.

Council members were also divided in Huntington Beach, approving the project in March by a 4-3 vote. At the time, Michael Shames, executive director of the watchdog Utility Consumers’ Action Network said Poseidon had been put on notice. A slight shift in the political climate, he said, could change desalination’s prospects in Southern California.

But desalination’s future appeared bright Wednesday night in Carlsbad.

The two cities’ plans are nearly identical. Both are proposed at coastal power plants and would draw from the water used to cool the plants’ internal processes. The two plants combined could produce enough water to supply about 225,000 homes.

So what’s so different between the political environments in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad?

Several people familiar with the projects say a mobilized homeowners’ association in Huntington Beach caused the acrimony there. The association had fought post-energy crisis efforts to reenergize the city’s power plant. They’d fought for cleanup of a nearby toxic dump.

“They’ve been semi-organized for a while and they’ve been fed up with the power plant,” said Huntington Beach Councilman Keith Bohr, who supported the project. “They’re kind of like: ‘I don’t care what you propose, I’m against it.’ They can’t take anything.”

Huntington Beach Councilwoman Debbie Cook, an opponent, characterized it differently. She served on the state’s desalination task force and said she used that experience to solidify opposition against the proposal. Carlsbad hasn’t had anyone who has similarly raised the flag of opposition, she said.

“Even the press down there has done a horrible job of covering the impacts, the cost,” she said. “The media did not do their homework – just as the board bought into it.”

Environmentalists warn that desalination plants will exacerbate damage to marine life caused by the sea-water intake of power plants. The plants suck in sea water as part of the cooling process, thereby killing billions of organisms such as fish, larvae and plankton.

Michael Shames at UCAN said the Carlsbad decision was “a testament to the axiom that love blinds. They’re not seeing the big picture.”

Rising fuel prices are making electricity expensive, Shames said, sending the economics of desalinated water exceedingly high.

Poseidon’s project in Carlsbad now goes to the Carlsbad City Council for consideration in June. The company still has two options for the plant. It can build the plant privately – the path that advanced Wednesday night – and sell the water to a handful of local agencies. The risk is that the California Coastal Commission will resist any effort to privatize seawater, a public resource.

Or the company can continue negotiating with the San Diego County Water Authority, and allow the public agency to own the plant, with Poseidon building and operating it.

The paths are moving forward simultaneously.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at

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