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Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007 | In the wake of the 1987-1992 drought that left parched Southern Californians coping with severe water shortages, San Diegans took a new approach to their drinking water consumption.

Conserving water became popular. Low-flow showerheads and toilets proliferated. Water agencies such as the San Diego County Water Authority began looking for as many new water sources as they could find.

And in Santa Barbara, the shortage prompted construction of a water supply viewed as drought-proof and expensive: A desalination plant that would convert seawater into drinking water. But the drought ended, the city found cheaper water sources and the plant was shuttered.

Today, with another shortage looming, water conservation and new supplies remain important goals throughout Southern California. But as the region faces potential court-ordered water cutbacks next year from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — a major source — it is left to again ponder what role the Pacific Ocean will play in satiating its thirst.

With a long debate about a Carlsbad desalination plant reaching its crescendo, advocates say the project is coming of age at the right time, with the region facing the conditions that desalination could, in the long-term, help ameliorate.

“People are starting to understand we may be in trouble,” said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, which has a 30-year contract to buy desalinated water if the plant is approved. “The timing of this project is perfect.”

On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission is scheduled to weigh in on desalination’s future. It will decide whether to give the go-ahead to a private company’s planned desalination plant in Carlsbad.

Many, including the commission’s staff, say desalination’s time still hasn’t come.

Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources has spent nine years developing the $300 million Carlsbad project, which would convert 100 million gallons of seawater into 50 million gallons of drinking water each day. (The other 50 million extra-salty gallons would be mixed with more water and dumped back in the ocean.)

If approved, the plant would increase the region’s water supply by nearly 10 percent. It could clear the way for other desalination projects, including one Poseidon wants to build in Huntington Beach. Jim Barrett, director of San Diego’s Water Department, said he’d consider a desalination plant for the city of San Diego if the 12-member commission approves the Carlsbad facility. Barrett said he first wants proof that the plant can operate effectively. Poseidon floundered in its only other desalination foray in Tampa, Fla.

Peter MacLaggan, Poseidon’s senior vice president, said local water agencies had been in negotiations to buy desalinated water before the scope of next year’s shortages became clear. But the possible shortage spotlights the project’s drought-proof benefits, MacLaggan said.

“That’s why these people are interested,” he said. “There is no other reason to be interested.”

But questions remain about the cost of the project — both financially and environmentally.

With a water shortage looming, “there’s no question that new sources of water become more valuable to us,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network, a utility watchdog. “Yes, desal makes a lot of sense. But I haven’t seen it cost out affordably.”

The San Diego County Water Authority plans to build its own desalination plant in North County — likely around Camp Pendleton — sometime between 2015 and 2020. That’s about the time Poseidon expects the cost of desalinated water to become cheaper than the price of imported water. San Diego currently imports about 80 percent of its water from distant sources: The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and Colorado River.

Currently, Poseidon projects it will cost $1,050 to produce an acre foot of desalinated water, higher than the $679-per-acre-foot the water authority charges its customers. (An acre foot is about enough water to supply two homes for one year.) But Poseidon expects the authority’s price to continue increasing. The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which delivers most of the water authority’s supply, is offering a $250-per-acre-foot subsidy to agencies that buy desalinated water to encourage its use. The subsidy would help make desalinated water’s price more affordable.

But some say the subsidy and higher cost of desalinated water make it a better option farther in the future — not now.

“We here in San Diego made a beeline to desal without seriously exploring alternatives,” said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor. “I’ve always said desal was the long-term solution, but in the meantime we needed to do more demand management. There’s a lot more that can be done that’s a lot cheaper. But it means we have to change our lifestyle.”

And that means fewer green lawns, more drought-tolerant landscaping and more efficient outdoor water use. When the 1987-1992 drought struck, the San Diego County Water Authority reaped savings indoors, advocating for low-flow shower heads and toilets. But gains now must be made outdoors, said Ken Weinberg, the authority’s director of water resources.

“The landscape savings, where future conservation has to come from, is much more difficult and more challenging,” Weinberg said. “You swap out a toilet or a washing machine, you don’t have to do anything. Those choices in the landscape are few.”

The Coastal Commission’s staff has recommended rejecting Poseidon’s permit application. Without the commission’s approval, the project couldn’t be built, unless Poseidon filed suit and won in court.

Tom Luster, a commission environmental scientist, said the project’s impacts on fish and other marine life have not been minimized. The plant should modify its pumping system, he said, burying intake pumps underground to reduce their effects on marine life, which can otherwise get sucked in.

The commission’s staff report also challenges Poseidon’s plans to offset its energy impacts. The company has pledged to make the energy-intensive desalination plant go carbon-neutral. But it has not outlined a specific plan, the report states.

“We recognize the need for water in the area and the importance of having local supplies,” Luster said. “But the project as proposed needs to have some substantial changes before it’s in the public interest to approve it.”

The commission meets at 8 a.m. Thursday at 1433 Camino del Rio South in Mission Valley.

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or {"requests":{"event":"https:\/\/voiceofsandiego.org\/wp-content\/plugins\/newspack-popups\/includes\/..\/api\/campaigns\/index.php"},"triggers":{"trackPageview":{"on":"visible","request":"event","visibilitySpec":{"selector":"#c148","visiblePercentageMin":50,"totalTimeMin":250,"continuousTimeMin":100},"extraUrlParams":{"popup_id":"id_702399","cid":"CLIENT_ID(newspack-cid)"}}}}

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