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When I joined Coastkeeper seven years ago, my goal was to focus on direct water pollution issues and avoid getting mired in more global issues, such as water supply or energy issues. Unfortunately, reality set in.
Like water supply, regional energy policy has a tremendous impact on the health of our coasts – in fact, energy decisions made over the next few years might be the single most important factor in restoring San Diego’s coast.
Energy production has now passed agriculture as the largest water user the United States. Every year, thermoelectric power facilities withdraw more than 100 trillion gallons from U.S. waters – an astounding 48 percent of all freshwater and saline-water . Most of this water was derived from surface water and used for once-through cooling (OTC) at power plants.
The overwhelming majority of organisms in this massive volume are killed by being entrained into the facility or impinged on intake screens. This staggering mortality – trillions of fish, shellfish, plankton and other species at all life stages – has stressed and depleted aquatic, coastal and marine ecosystems for decades, and has contributed to the collapse of some fisheries.
San Diego’s three OTC plants – South Bay, Encina and San Onofre – use over three billion gallons of water daily. San Onofre, alone, has destroyed over two hundred acres (59,000 kelp plants) of kelp forest (or almost 10 percent of the remaining kelp forests along California’s mainland coast), causing the kelp fish population in the area to decline an estimated 80 percent. A single fish kill incident at San Onofre wiped out over five tons of anchovies.
The 40-year-old South Bay Power Plant in Chula Vista, in addition to its tremendous air quality and public health impacts, is also permitted to take in 15 percent-20 percent of the South Bay’s water, or up to 600 million gallons, every day for cooling purposes. This results in the discharges of residual chlorine, metals, and waste heat to among the most sensitive areas of the bay, which is flanked by wildlife refuges. The heating and chemical sterilization of the bay water kills a wide range of marine life and organisms critical to the bay’s ecosystem.
As with water supply, San Diego must implement aggressive energy conservation programs, coupled with developing local, clean and renewable supplies of energy to meet our needs. Our energy policy must begin with replacing our three OTC dinosaurs with new, cleaner, and more efficient energy production that will use dry-cooling technologies, rather than continuing to use coastal water in their operations.