While water supply is a critical issue for San Diego and the arid southwest, the leading environmental crisis (and I would argue moral crisis) facing our nation and planet is climate change. Whether it is dire warnings from Vice President Al Gore, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pope Benedict, or your own eyes that have been witness to record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes, floods, cold and heat waves, we know we must make solving the climate crisis a top priority. 

In response to this grave challenge,  California passed the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which establishes a timetable to bring California into near compliance with the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol (reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020). The proposed Carlsbad Desalination Plant will be one of the first tests of AB 32 … and whether California will take on the challenge of climate change sincerely, or merely pay lip-service to the addressing the crisis.

San Diego’s water policy — or lack thereof — has a tremendous impact on our environment. According to the California Energy Commission, transporting water throughout the state and to customers requires 19 percent of California’s electricity, consumes 32 percent of the state’s natural gas supplies, and uses 88 million gallons of diesel, contributing significantly to global warming. Transporting surface water supplies from the northern half of the state to Southern California requires 60 times more energy than what is needed to convey water in Northern California, making the development of local supplies an imperative.

However, open-ocean desalination, the technology proposed for the 50 million-gallon-per-day (MGD) Carlsbad Desalination Plant, is the single most energy-intensive water supply option in the region. It requires 47 percent more energy than transporting water from the San Joaquin Delta through the State Water Project, which is currently the most energy-intensive way we get water. Put another way, according to our experts, the CDP will add between 100,000-154,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, to our fragile atmosphere every year, thus exacerbating the impact of our water policy on global warming.

In conditionally approving the CDP, the State Lands Commission and California Coastal Commission required Poseidon Resources to develop a Carbon Action Plan (CAP) to ensure the facility is ‘carbon neutral’ and does not contribute to global warming. Poseidon agreed to embrace this requirement and achieve carbon neutrality. Unfortunately, Poseidon’s CAP veers significantly away from true carbon neutrality.  First, the Plan ignores direct impacts from the facility, including construction and truck traffic generated by the CDP. Even with these oversights, Poseidon acknowledges that the facility will discharge 97,165 metric tons of CO2 annually. While less than our estimates, this is still an alarming number. 

The vast majority (over two-thirds) of Poseidon’s proposed carbon offsets come from the 67,506 metric tons of CO2 that the company contends will be avoided by the 50 million gallons of water a day that will not have to be transported from the San Joaquin Delta if the CDP is built. There is only open problem with this calculation — nobody actually claims or believes the CDP will reduce the amount of water we get from the Delta. 

No city, water department or other agency will commit to reducing our imports from the Delta by any amount, let alone the entire 50MGD that will be created by the CDP. Even Poseidon’s most ardent supporters do not believe the CDP represents ‘replacement water’ from State Water Project, but instead believe it will help ensure more growth for the region. And even Poseidon admits (implicitly) that its water is unlikely to offset Delta water, when in its CAP, Poseidon suggests, “if replaced water is pumped through the [State Water Project] for purposes other than supplying that water to the Project’s customers, then the responsibility for the [greenhouse gasses] associated with that conveyance lies with the new recipient of that water.” In other words, even though this new growth and expanded water use could not occur but for the CDP, Poseidon wants to absolve itself of this responsibility, and pass the buck on the future projects that would not be possible if the plant is not built in the first place.  

Staff at every regulatory agency involved in this process — including the Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission and Regional Water Board — have generally opposed this project, recognizing its serious impact on our ocean environmental and climate change. Yet, up to this point, the recommendations of those people who have the most expertise and have most closely monitored the CDP have been overruled by political appointees and elected officials who have caved into Poseidon’s demands, largely as a result of the political pressure applied by the company.  

The August hearings are no different, as staff at the Coastal Commission, State Lands Commission and several other air quality and energy agencies have taken the position that Poseidon must offset all the emissions from the facility, as the company initially promised.  

So, the question is, will the California Coastal Commissioners and State Lands Commissioners comply with AB 32, hold Poseidon to it prior commitment and responsibility, and demand that the Carlsbad Desalination Plant fully mitigate its environmental and climate impacts. Or will these officials overrule staff recommendations, providing corporate welfare to a company that would not be economically viable if it was forced to comply with the law, thus forcing San Diegans and Californians to bear the true cost of the facility’s operations. I guess we’ll have to wait for these hearings to know.

In the meantime, my next post will focus on other options for enhancing local water supplies that are more cost-effective and environmentally friendly and less energy intensive than open-ocean desalination. 

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