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People need water to live. We drink it, we clean with it, and it carries away our dead goldfish.
A complex network of pumps, canals, and pipelines hundreds of miles long keep our little civilization by the sea alive.
Very few people understand that water system. Those who do live with a managed anxiety. They know that, should it fall apart, our entire economy will go down with it.
For decades, that fear has provoked San Diegans to look longingly at the sea. We’ve got a lot of ocean — could we drink it?
We’re about to find out.
San Diego will likely soon agree to buy water from a private company. That company, Poseidon Resources, is going to build a desalination plant at Carlsbad’s Encina Power Station. It has all the permits. It just needs the money.
Should we give it to them? Is it a good deal?
The San Diego County Water Authority estimates the deal will cost average San Diegans an extra $5 to $7 a month. Poseidon is building the facility itself and will have to deliver the water. If all goes well, it will start pumping water — up to our standards — and we’ll start buying it at a set price.
Unfortunately, getting the salt out of salt water is expensive. It takes massive amounts of energy. It’s actually the most expensive source of water on the table.
Its saving grace, however, may be the future. You see, importing our water is risky too. Global climate change and thirsty Arizonans are among the threats to our supply.
Lynn Reaser and San Diego’s Equinox Center project the cost of importing water over the next 20 years will rise 6.7 percent per year. That’s about a 50 percent faster rise than the cost of desalination.
So, taking the salt out of seawater may be an investment that pays off over time. But what do we get out of that investment now? The water authority says we get security. If we want a more reliable water future, we have to pay for it.
This new source of water would make up about 7 percent of San Diego’s water portfolio. That’s hardly transformative,but it is a lot of water — enough for about 143,000 homes a year.
But how does it compare to other options?
One of those options, for example, is part of a potential solution to an old problem. The city of San Diego does not currently treat its sewage up to standards. The federal government is likely going to require the city to address this, which could prompt a deal that includes recycling this wastewater into potable drinking water.
Recycling water is called indirect potable reuse, or IPR. And the city is slowly inching toward approving it.
Proponents of this effort, however, are worried that if this desalination deal eats up too much of people’s water bills, residents won’t support the extra cost IPR might add. And if they don’t support IPR, then what will the city do about all the sewage it’s dumping in the ocean without being properly treated?
Then there’s conservation. The Equinox Center found that 55 percent of San Diego’s water use goes to landscape watering.
Yep, our lawns.
“Aggressive conservation plus IPR equals a lot of problems solved,” says Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney.
The water authority believes both water recycling and desalination are crucial.
“We feel very strongly that both are necessary and have a place,” says deputy general manager Sandy Kerl.
They may both have a place in our hearts and minds, but the question is whether we have space on our water bills.
This column also ran in the December 2012 issue of San Diego Magazine.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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