Statement: At a Feb. 3 meeting of the Orange County Water District, members of the public questioned plans to build a new desalination plant along the coast. They noted San Diego County Water Authority officials were forced to dump treated water into a lake because of a contract they signed with Poseidon Resources to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad. In response, Scott Maloni, vice president of Poseidon, said, “Despite some comments you heard tonight about water not being used or not being needed, that is not the case.”

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Poseidon navigated significant regulatory and legal obstacles to construct the desalination plant in Carlsbad, in cooperation with the County Water Authority. Now, the company is taking that success and trying to construct more plants – plants that may seem especially appealing given the multi-year drought. One of the potential sites is at Huntington Beach in Orange County.

But terms of the contract the County Water Authority signed with Poseidon helped created a situation that raises questions about future deals with similar terms, as well as the short-term need for desalination generally. Under the terms of the contract, San Diego is forced to pay for Poseidon’s water whether it needs it or not.

In recent months, San Diego has not needed some of Poseidon’s water. There are a few reasons – water politics, pipeline physics and unexpectedly low demand. The end result was that San Diego water officials dumped a half billion gallons of costly drinking water into a lake near Chula Vista. That water included desalinated water, some of the most expensive drinking water in the world. To be used, the excess treated water that went into the lake has to be retreated, at the cost of about a quarter-million dollars.

Desalination skeptics in Orange County, including Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental group that opposes desalination, take that confluence of circumstances in San Diego to be a cautionary tale about desalination and Poseidon.

The San Diego County Water Authority, for its part, blamed the dumped water on its main supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. San Diego officials said they asked Metropolitan to cut deliveries but Metropolitan refused. There’s another way to look at it, though: Without the restrictive terms of its contract with Poseidon, San Diego could have relied on Metropolitan’s water, which costs about half as much as desalinated water.

In a VOSD op-ed, the chairman of the Water Authority made the case why the short-term troubles were worth it.

Opponents at the meeting wondered if San Diego’s experience might repeat itself in Orange County.

Maloni stood up and denied the premise of their concerns.

“Despite some comments you heard tonight about water not being used or not being needed, that is not the case,” he said during the meeting, which was filmed.

But top officials at both Metropolitan and the San Diego County Water Authority had said, just days earlier, that San Diego was in the bizarre situation of having too much treated water.

Maloni did not respond to emails and text message seeking comment.

There is a generous way to construe Maloni’s remarks. In semi-arid Southern California, perhaps there is no such thing as unneeded water. Right now, the county’s reservoirs are less than 50 percent full. And, overall, a half-billion gallons is a relatively small amount of water, enough for only a small fraction of the county’s population.

But water officials never intended to buy expensive treated water only to have to treat it again.

Orange County Coastkeeper flagged Maloni’s comments in a press release.

“Let’s not make the same costly mistake as San Diego, where they are throwing taxpayer money down the drain due to oversupply of water triggered by the Carlsbad desalination plant,” said Garry Brown, the group’s executive director.

One of the things San Diego water officials blame for the bizarre oversupply of treated water is Gov. Jerry Brown’s ordered urban water customers to cut their water use. Environmentalists say it’s precisely that sort of conservation that should be mandated before officials pay to construct expensive desalination plants.

There are reasons the County Water Authority agreed to buy desalinated water, no matter what: Officials did not initially foresee the confluence of circumstances that left them with more treated water than they needed. And Poseidon would not have built the Carlsbad plant without a guaranteed return on its investment – and by promising to buy water, San Diego officials promised to cover the $1 billion price tag for the plant, ongoing operational costs and a profit for Poseidon.

Still, none of that changes the fact that San Diego was forced to buy more expensive desalinated water when it could not use it.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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