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There are many reasons for environmental opposition to the proposed Carlsbad Desalination Plant (CDP), which include:

1. The CDP will continue a legacy of coastal destruction by sucking in over 300 million gallons of sea water a day, which will kill a significant amount of fish and other marine life through impingement (killing wildlife that gets pinned against intake screens) and entrainment (sucking smaller organisms through the facility).

2. Open-ocean desalination is the single most energy-intensive water supply option available in the region, and the CDP will add over 100,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions to our fragile atmosphere, exacerbating climate change concerns.

3. The CDP could pave the way for privatizing our water supply, which sets a potentially dangerous precedent and promotes bad public policy for the region.

4. Significantly superior water supply options exist, including conservation, water recycling and more environmentally-friendly desalination technologies, which are cheaper, more energy efficient and more protective of our coast.

5. Finally, if Poseidon Resource’s promises seem too good to be true, it is because they are! When one listens to Poseidon’s pitch, the CDP seems like a ‘no-brainer’. However, with even a bit of additional research and critical thought, it is easy to see that many of Poseidon’s promises simply cannot be kept, and significant unanswered questions exist that must be answered before we move ahead with the biggest desalination project in the western hemisphere.

A Legacy of Coastal Destruction

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant will suck in over 300 million gallons of sea water a day, which will kill a significant amount of fish and other marine life through impingement (killing wildlife that gets pinned against intake screens) and entrainment (sucking smaller organisms through the facility). Even using Poseidon Resource’s numbers, their facility would take in “about 12 percent of the larval fish within Agua Hedionda Lagoon.” This represents a significant impact on the Lagoon and the entire coastal ecosystem. 

Poseidon claims this number to be insignificant because the majority of marine life to be killed is ‘surplus production’, and most would not have survived in nature anyway. This argument is preposterous.  First, nature does not waste — every organism serves an ecological function and plays a crucial role in overall ecosystem health. Even marine life larvae that Poseidon claims is irrelevant as it would never reach reproduction age plays a critical role in the food chain.

Moreover, as the largest desalination facility in the western hemisphere, the CDP has the potential to pave the way for more desalination facilities that use open-ocean intakes for “feed water,” continuing a legacy of intakes devastating coastal ecosystems which was first started by power plants employing similar “once through cooling” (or OTC) systems.

The fact that our oceans are in serious decline is beyond dispute. According to Pew Oceans Commission and President-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, 90 percent of worldwide stocks of tuna, cod and other large pelagic fish have disappeared in the last 50 years, and many fisheries, including 60 percent of those in California, are in decline or on the brink of collapse.

While over-fishing and pollution are major contributors to this problem, the use of massive water intakes for power plants is another significant culprit. In fact, energy production has now passed agriculture as the largest water user the United States, and every year electric generating and industrial plants withdraw more than 100 trillion gallons from U.S. waters. In California 21 coastal power plants that are permitted to withdraw up to 16.7 billion gallons of seawater per day.

Fortunately for our oceans, many of these antiquated, inefficient power plants are being shut down or converted to more eco-friendly cooling technologies. In 2001, California’s OTC power plants took in an average of 13.5 billion gallons, and that figure has been reduced to a little over 9 billion gallons per day by 2005. In response to a case brought by the Hudson Riverkeeper (with San Diego Coastkeeper one of dozens of named plaintiffs), the federal court recently ruled that power plants that employ once through cooling are not using the required Best Technology Available, thus violating the Clean Water Act. This ruling likely signals the end of OTC technology, which has had devastating impacts to waterways across the country. 

However, desalination facilities, including the CDP, are being proposed at several sites that house or housed OTC power plants in order to save capital costs as the infrastructure already exists for massive intakes of water. While the 300+ million gallons a day that will be taken in by the CDP will have its own significant impacts on the local coastal ecosystem, one must wonder if this facility helps pave the way for replacing the devastating national impacts of OTC on coastal ecosystems with similar impacts from proposed open-ocean intake desalination facilities.   

My next posts will focus on energy impacts as well as privatization concerns associated with desalination.

— BRUCE REZNIK

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