Earlier this summer, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association gave its Golden Watchdog award to the Carlsbad Desalination Project, reflecting the group’s support “every step of the way” for what many in the environmental community consider the region’s biggest boondoggle in recent memory.

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While much of the fight against the desalination plant has focused on the devastating environmental harm to marine life and huge output of greenhouse gasses, this recognition from the Taxpayers Association really has environmentalists scratching our collective head.

Of course, it would be quite simple to explain the award by pointing out the multiple Poseidon Water representatives who have sat on the Taxpayers Association’s board of directors “every step of the way” while the project was in development – Poseidon is the company behind the desal plant. At this point, however, perhaps it is more appropriate to point out the absurdity of the award by showing how the desalination plant is horrible for taxpayers.

It’s the most expensive water available. This should be enough of a reason. Imported water costs less than half as much as desalinated water ($830 to $942 per acre foot versus $2,131 per acre foot for treated water). Every credible report on the subject finds that conservation is the cheapest and most effective way to increase water supplies, and San Diego County residents have proven highly capable at conserving when they want to. Why would the Taxpayers Association support charging taxpayers for the most expensive water possible?

The agreement between the San Diego County Water Authority and Poseidon is a 30-year “take or pay” contract, which unduly benefits Poseidon. It’s unfathomable how SDCTA sees a taxpayer benefit when a company gets a contract with the government obligating taxpayers to purchase the most expensive water available in minimum quantities for 30 years with absolutely no consideration for need. In fact, the desalination plant has barely opened for business and we’re already dumping treated water into reservoirs because we have to buy the water whether we need it or not.

We still don’t know which ratepayers will shoulder the long-term burden of the desalinated water. The Water Authority has parroted Poseidon’s claim that the desalination plant will add a mere $5 to ratepayers’ monthly bills regionwide. This increase, however, contemplates that all of the region’s water districts will be forced to buy more expensive treated water from the Water Authority, which they should not. Some of the districts have their own treatment systems (e.g., the city of San Diego, Padre Dam Municipal Water District, Helix Water District) and instead buy raw, or untreated water from the Water Authority at a discount and then treat it themselves prior to distribution. Though equity suggests the districts that rely on the Water Authority to provide treated water should pay the higher unit cost, the fact is if this occurs, the ratepayers in smaller districts (i.e., farmers and suburban homes) will see monthly bill increases from tens to hundreds of dollars. In other words, unless the Water Authority can inappropriately saddle thousands of ratepayers in the city of San Diego with the bulk of the cost of desalinated water, the rest of the county’s ratepayers will surely revolt. Although the Water Authority has come up with an interim allocation that allows the cost to spread out among ratepayers who don’t actually benefit from the treated water, this rate structure is both impermanent and illegal.

Water recycling makes more sense. Without qualification, both indirect (clean water put in a reservoir or groundwater) and direct (clean water piped straight to users) potable reuse make more sense environmentally and economically than desalination. The city of San Diego is drawing ever closer to approval of its Pure Water project that will result in tens of millions of gallons per day of raw sewage recycled for storage in a local reservoir for eventual treatment for potable uses. In addition to providing a cost-effective, equitable, drought-proof supply of potable water, the Pure Water project will have the secondary benefit of reducing discharges of treated sewage to the ocean (in stark contrast to the desalination paradigm that results in massive mortality to marine life near those plants’ intakes and outfalls). City of San Diego ratepayers are expected to shoulder the bulk of cost for Pure Water, and yet the Taxpayers Association and the County Water Authority would also have them paying for highly treated and expensive desalinated water that they neither need nor want.

I get it, understanding how and why water rates change is difficult. But, at the end of the day it’s not hard to see that we have two vastly superior options to the expensive fraud that is and will be the Carlsbad Desalination Project: water conservation and water recycling. It’s just a shame the Taxpayers Association has become a mouthpiece for corporate greed and agency malfeasance rather than a true protector of San Diego taxpayers.

Marco Gonzalez is a partner with Coast Law Group LLP and executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation. Gonzalez’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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