Sunday, Feb. 8, 2009 | The proposed Carlsbad desalination plant’s timing is perfect. With California’s water supplies crimped and cuts on the way, the idea of a new water source in San Diego is making politicians salivate.

The seawater desalination plant proposed by Poseidon Resources Corp. is advertised as being able to tap into the Pacific Ocean, a drought-proof supply. Now the state sits in a drought. And with the project’s permitting nearly finished, state leaders are lining up in support — from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to Linda Adams, the state’s environmental protection secretary.

Their message to the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, the last agency to withhold needed permits: Enough already. Stop slowing down construction.

So the regional board, the local water pollution regulator, is being assailed from both proponents and opponents of the project. Environmental groups have sued the regional board for giving conditional approval to the desalination plant. And state leaders are flexing their political muscles, urging the board to go all the way.

“The political interest in this item is huge,” said John Robertus, the regional board’s executive officer. “And every day it doesn’t rain, it goes up a notch.”

The regional board in 2006 granted a necessary permit to Poseidon, which will allow it to discharge into the Pacific. But it came with conditions, including developing a specific plan for mitigating the plant’s impact on marine life. The agency’s staff proposes to continue withholding approval until Poseidon refines its mitigation plans. The discussion is scheduled Wednesday. Asked whether the agency is feeling political pressure, Robertus said: “Certainly. Water is about politics.”

The desalination plant has always had the region’s attention. But with mandatory water-use restrictions likely coming to Southern California this summer, the project has grabbed the attention of the governor and other state officials. The plant, which could begin operating in December 2011 at the earliest, would boost San Diego’s supply 10 percent. The project will set the precedent for other desalination efforts.

At least one will follow on the Carlsbad plant’s heels. Poseidon, a private Connecticut-based company, is seeking permits for a plant in Huntington Beach. But Carlsbad’s challenges were greater, and so it has pushed that project first. The regulatory examples set there will be followed in Huntington Beach and in any other seawater desalination plants.

“As goes Carlsbad, so goes the rest of the coast,” Robertus said. “This is a contentious issue. And it’s going to get more intense as we get closer to the date when they begin to pump water.”

At the center of the current debate is Poseidon’s plan to mitigate the plant’s impacts on marine life. It will suck in 304 million gallons of seawater daily and turn 50 million gallons into drinking water. The filtered-out salt will be diluted with the remaining 254 million gallons and sent back to the ocean.

The pumps that draw in that water will kill about two pounds of fish each day. (Poseidon says this is less than the daily consumption of an adult brown pelican). They’ll also squash 11 million to 16 million fish larvae daily — four billion to five billion annually.

State regulators are requiring Poseidon to mitigate that damage by restoring 37 acres of wetlands. The company estimates it would cost $10 million wherever it decides to repair damaged habitat and build a functioning ecosystem.

This hang-up has everyone’s attention. The regional board wants Poseidon to pick a specific site. Poseidon has identified 11 and says it will decide on a specific location later. Five are in San Diego County: the Tijuana River Valley, San Elijo Lagoon, San Dieguito River Valley, Agua Hedionda Lagoon and Buena Vista Lagoon. Others are in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

The company says picking a site now would require a lengthy environmental review and delay the plant’s construction. The company promises to choose a site and finish mitigation before the plant begins operating, Poseidon spokesman Scott Maloni said.

The environmental groups that have sued say Poseidon has the process backward. The company should not be able to get approval for building its project, they say, before completely identifying its mitigation plans.

“It’s not responsible for the agencies to approve a project without these questions being answered,” said Gabriel Solmer, legal director for San Diego Coastkeeper. “Just because Poseidon has said ‘We’ll do whatever it takes and we’ll find a place to do mitigation,’ that shouldn’t be sufficient. You should know where the mitigation is going to occur.”

As that debate continues, state leaders are interjecting. The regional board has received letters urging approval from Schwarzenegger; Linda Adams; Mike Chrisman, the natural resources secretary; and A.G. Kawamura, the food and agriculture secretary. Donald Koch, director of the state Department of Fish and Game, wrote that mitigation plans were sufficient.

The letters sounds similar and say Poseidon’s plans do enough. Schwarzenegger wrote:

The situation in San Diego, a county nearly 90 percent reliant on imported water from northern California and the Colorado River, is equally dire. Last week, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders announced the high probability that the city will need to start rationing water July 1.

Adams said nearly the same thing:

San Diego is particularly vulnerable to drought conditions because it imports close to 90% of its water. … Last week Mayor Sanders announced the high probability that San Diego will face water rationing by July.

Same with Chrisman:

San Diego is particularly vulnerable to drought conditions because it imports approximately 90 percent of its water supply.

Poseidon, which has spent $172,000 on lobbying in Sacramento since 2007, doesn’t appear to have made financial donations to any of Schwarzenegger’s pet causes to get the governor’s attention.

“I’m waiting for that ask,” Maloni said. “I’m sure we’ll get that.”

Instead, it appears the state’s drought is the driving force.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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