The REAL Truth Behind Carlsbad “Bud” Lewis Poseidon Desalination Plant. A Costly Mistake.

  • Posted on 7 March 2022
  • By George Courser
The Carlsbad ocean desalination (desal) plant, the largest in the western hemisphere, was conceived as a futile scheme to beat the 1987-92' drought. The San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) was clashing with their supplier, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), over a temporary 31% drought supply reduction. That dispute was the seed of a two decades battle to have Poseidon Resources construct this energy intensive industrial water plant. So what factors caused Carlsbad's ocean desal water to become one of the world's most expensive tap waters?  Why are the environmental impacts so troubling? Why are the price hikes continuous?   
A backdrop is required to sort out the puzzle pieces of how San Diego pushed for an ocean desalination plant. In the early 1940s, San Diego was still considered an agricultural economy, supplemented by the U.S. Navy. Growth was inevitable, as was the war-driven defense industry. In this era, limited groundwater and a few dammed river flows were the source of drinking and industrial water.  San Diego's first aqueduct was constructed by the Navy in 1947, with the second pipeline being put in service in 1957 by the Bureau of Reclamation. This was not the water supply vision from San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) leaders, this was Federal.
The SDCWA was formed in 1944, a result of war effort demands. SDCWA supplied the pumps and pipes, if not the scope and planning capacity.  During the ensuing years, the tensions and outright litigation began with the SDCWA vs Metropolitan Water District (MWD) on MWD’s Water Stewardship Rate (the water transportation charge). Carlsbad's $1 billion desalination was a direct result of  those expensive water supply squabbles. San Diego was determined to diversify water supply at any cost away from MWD and that cost has proven huge and allowed continuous growth. San Diego is one of the most expensive cities for water nationwide. See 2018 Guardian Report  
The foundation of the Carlsbad desal plant was SDCWA's seething hubris, grossly distorted water needs forecasting, while being secure in the knowledge that the ratepayers in the entire San Diego County would ultimately be underwriting the $1 billion cost of the plant, successful or not. The roots of the ocean desalination concept reach back to 1991, nurtured by board member calls for ever increasing capacity, despite urban per capita potable water use in San Diego County declining nearly 40 percent from 1990 to 2015. The ability of the board members to defy this lower demand reality was unshakable. Such was the power of blind faith of ever expanding water markets with SDCWAs mantra of never enough capacity, for more development. 
Of course, so was the guarantee ratepayers would be paying the tab for the SDCWA bonds over decades with increased water rates. While SDCWA fronted huge bond expenses, aware or not, ratepayers were left to pick up the entire check. This is the Authority's classic "cost shifting" trademark. This same formula was in place for the Carlsbad desal plant. Namely, Poseidon agrees to fund the construction of the plant, but the water agency agrees to purchase the water over a 30 year period without a fixed price. SDCWA would allow for increases of roughly 5% per year and pay for the pipeline and electrical costs increases. 
Most consumers think a $1billion plant would reliably and sustainably maintain  the ultimate water availability.  Carlsbad's Poseidon ocean desal plant simply could not live up to its hype. It continues failing with production requirements, being subject to shutdown from red tides, while  continuing to consume huge amounts of power, resulting in significant generation of greenhouse gasses. 
A recent comparison was heard regarding purchasing a Tesla, but having a Pinto delivered. Even with an initial "debugging" lasting 6-months, the list of faults with Poseidon began with reliability. The Poseidon plant had to pay a penalty of nearly $2 million dollars for failing to meet the 50 million gallon daily minimum contract production standards. The lack of production was nearly 5,000 acre feet. A key talking point promoting Poseidon was the security of having an "endless source" of water (our fragile ocean) should an earthquake sever supply from Metropolitan’s State Water Project Aqueduct, despite MWD’s investment in an off-site overpriced reservoir built in case of an earthquake. 
In the obverse, and a situation termed "absurd" by the Voice of San Diego, the Water Authority had too much water due to declining sales. Their remedy consisted of dumping 554 million gallons of treated drinking water into Otay Mesa Reservoir, in the south county, requiring even more expensive treatment of hyper expensive desalinated water. The SDCWA "take or pay" contract with Poseidon required the purchase of 50,000 gallons per day, regardless of need.  This massive waste of water would be a disaster for a privately held company, but nothing to worry about when ratepayers would be footing the bill.  
The cost to consumers of ocean desalinated water proves to be 200% more expensive than imported water, at $2,725 an acre foot, with ever increasing ratepayer bills. Though the quote cited by SDCWA and Poseidon as a selling point was the increase would only be $5 per month per rate payer. We always knew, and we now know this isn’t true. Example: if you were paying $50/month before Poseidon Carlsbad, you’re now paying $150, definitely a far cry from $5/month. 
What about the environmental cost? In 2018 alone, Poseidon was cited on 5 different occasions for violating their wastewater discharge permit by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. The negative ocean impacts of the plant mount as the brine residue is flushed from the Carlsbad plant. Meeting a production goal of 50,000 gallons of potable water daily requires an intake of 100,000 gallons of ocean water on a daily basis, with the byproduct of the remaining brine diluted and flushed to the outfall pipes, always in the same locations. The question at present is how much brine over what timeline, can the ocean and marine life sustain? Too much brine creates "dead zones", as the brine is difficult to be reblended with seawater. 
A corresponding defect is the entrainment of sea life in the pumps, with a pronounced focus on fish eggs and tiny fish larvae with the potential loss of multi populations of fish species. The benthic, or bottom zone of animals such as clams, worms, oysters, crustaceans and mussels are some of the creatures and ecosystems subject to the threat of egg losses and species collapse by the powerful inlet pumps and the supersaturated brine discharge. 
Poseidon’s promises to upgrade the intake and discharge have not been implemented. 
The power to operate the Carlsbad plant and its massive ocean desalination processes are significant. The daily electric power requirements are eye-popping. 38 MWs are used everyday, the equivalent of the power needs for 6,232 households. Observed from the status of greenhouse gas generation, 38 MW would create 29,198 units of CO2 from straight natural gas. SDG&E claims 33% renewable power, which would reduce that total to 19,330 units of CO2.  This is a significant GHG number for a business that runs 24-7. It would require a 190-acre solar farm to produce that amount of renewable power everyday to keep Poseidon in business. 
Poseidon shifted this cost to the ratepayers and has foisted this greenhouse gas it has generated onto the public to deal with.   Unfortunately, ratepayers are subject to these types of impacts, and yet have little or no voice or vote in these damaging choices. They have no paid lobbyists in Sacramento, City Hall or a liaison at the Water Boards to influence a vote. There was no citizen vote on the Poseidon plant, only a highly complex process of daytime meetings involving the Carlsbad City Council, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the California Coastal Commission to name a few of the regulatory agencies that failed.        
Please don't think the environmental community has been silent, no, they have been battling Poseidon for years. Sierra Club, San Diego Surfrider, Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation (CERF) and San Diego Coastkeeper diligently fought to protect the health of the water in Carlsbad. Others have joined the fray for Huntington Beach including some of our First Nation peoples, who have yet to be consulted.
Sierra Club has also taken a strong opposition stance to the proposed Huntington Beach Poseidon. That project has also been discussed for years, with endless meetings and hearings for those who can find the time to attend them. It actually was proposed first, before local opposition caused Poseidon to go to the politically more responsive San Diego county. 
Ratepayers and the environmental community are many times not able to travel to the California Coastal Commission meetings, while the developers have almost unlimited funds to employ experts and lobbyists. For once the playing field was almost leveled with Covid and the suspension of the Brown Act, enabling participation through Zoom, though it was far from perfect, as the long, long  meetings are held during working hours. 
At Sierra Club, it's our incredible volunteers who are key to this campaign.  As the Huntington Beach proposal unfolds, be assured you will be receiving updates from Sierra Club. 

George Courser is the Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club San Diego Chapter   

Editorial comments:
By Conner Everts - Water Committee Member
Let’s Not Continue the Poseidon MisAdventure 
The similarities to Poseidon’s modus operandi from the San Diego misadventure to the Huntington Beach proposal is alarming. 
First, the priority of proving the NEED for either project has never been established and the plant was proved unnecessary in San Diego with declining demand, before it was ever built.
Meanwhile, the ever increasing costs mean ratepayers will pay an increasing total cost for their water, even while using less, as Poseidon is now asking for a 50 year take or pay deal in Orange County. 
Second, lacking buyers for their overpriced water, the private speculator Poseidon-now owned by the global developer Brookfield-pitched their desal as no risk privately financed, and wants to be publicly underwritten. They continue to pursue bond funding through the state-that should be used for affordable housing, subsidies from the wholesaler MWD-that should be used for greater efficiencies, more recycling and fixing leaks. 
Like in San Diego, the move to remove the decision from local agencies to a wholesaler, in this case the Orange County Water District (OCWD)-which historically has done a great job with recharging groundwater with fully treated wastewater-left the ratepayers on the hook. 
The decision at the Coastal Commission on the Carlsbad Poseidon Desal plant was made in the midst of a drought and local firestorm, during which the opponent’s lawyer was evacuated three times.  They were grandfathered in, as new regulations requiring proving need and dealing with the environmental impacts of both the intakes and discharge were delayed. 
Unfortunately, when we came to Orange County years later, Poseidon manipulated the rules: Cost was not allowed to be part of the discussion on need and then the discussion quickly went to mitigation, before resolving the impacts. Political appointees were replaced during the deliberations and the tough questions were never answered. 
This despite the fact that Poseidon never did the required implementation of mitigation nor the upgrades on the intake from their San Deigo plant. Now they are claiming a false carbon neutrality through the troubled new Orange County Water Authority, with a public signing while Poseidon asked for a delay for the hearing at the coastal commission, again putting off the decision until at least May. 
If anything, the Orange County Huntington Beach proposal is worse than the wrong one in San Diego county. We now know the real cost of the water and Poseidon’s poor track record on its false promises to mitigate a small portion of their full impacts. 
Let’s not repeat the Poseidon misadventure, sold as a way of privatizing our fragile ocean for industrial profit, and let’s focus on local, cost effective and environmentally beneficial local solutions. Let’s listen to and at least consult with tribal interests and put Environmental Justice considerations first while providing long lasting positive local jobs for immediate climate change driven drought results. 
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Take ocean water and make it drinkable.

It looks like cost per gallon is 3 X compared to cost per gallon via conservation . .. No public funds … project needs to pay for itself . Water sales contract needs careful scrutiny .

The most expensive water used in SoCal can run up to $500+ per acre foot. Is the DeSal water from Poseidon really North of $2000?

A 150ft drop in Lake Mead's lake level is all that stands in the way of "deadpool". Where the dam could no longer release water down stream because the lake level is to low. Calif including san diego get 40% of their water from the Colorado. Deadpool! Water at any cost will be the norm. $2000.00 per acre foot may be consider cheap in 10 years. At least you are prepared

Yes, Scott Korba, while well water can be less than $500/acre foot, water sent from the Colorado River or Northern California costs over $1,000 per acre foot. More cost, the further it is sent, due to pumping costs. Thus San Diego County's costs are higher than Riverside county's costs. Yes, the desalinated water is more than $2,000/aft and that was known from the start, but reality sets in.

Stepping aside from the significant environmental concerns, our forefathers gifted water management to us as wise stewards of our beloved city. It's not an embellishment to say it's a spiritual responsibility, for us as caretakers of this immensely special gift of water, this vital & unquestionably precious key to life. Are we now to relinquish this precious gift, the most essential source of our life's sustenance to a private, profit-driven, entity? Are we now to outsource our forefathers inheritance and basic, as I believe, holy right to an outside business who will assume special monopolized water power over each citizen? Do you think Poseidon's interest is wholly altruistic in nature? We together are true and equal owners in our city's cherished water resource, I severely resist and resent losing this critically essential endowment. Think carefully on the terms of this partnership, it's a privatized 50 year take or pay water monopoly, which will soon be antiquated, is that what you chose to bequeath to our children? Hell no.

Give a solution not a complaint. What if there was no water then what?

The energy demands and the environmental problems associated with desalanization may be all too real but so is the fallacy of relying on "imported water" in the face of climate crisis. Millions of residents in seven states that depend on the Colorado River — which no longer makes it to sea! — are at risk of losing both water AND power if Mother Nature does not bail us out of what has been called a "mega drought". There are no perfect choices but if Israel, a country of ~9M can make desalinization work, perhaps there's another path forward for California, which out of those seven states is the only state that can desalinate. Because of years of infighting, the farmers who work the bread basket region of California are first on the chopping block, with proposals to buy out their water rights and essentially put them out of business so that we can also rely on "imported food". Since California supplies much of the nation and indeed the world with fruit, vegetables and nuts — the very food products we're supposed to rely on in a future of less livestock farming given the role of meat production to increase C02 levels — it makes very little sense to force them to bear the brunt of water shortages when, at least for their purposes, they are helping to feed the world. Loss of farming in California would cause grocery prices, which are already up significantly due to supply chain breakdown and the high cost of farm inputs such as fertilizer, to go up still further. This, in turn, would require a wealthy country with the capacity for food self-sufficiency to demand more food imports from poor countries and, in view of the war in Ukraine — Europe's bread basket — would represent a dangerous doubling down on the preexisting UN-declared global food crisis. We are faced with tough choices indeed. But unlike much of the Southwest, California could comply with federal government efforts to save the Colorado River IF the environmental lobby, which carries great political influence in California, would look at the totality of the environmental/climate picture. We are fast approaching the day when we have no choice BUT to get our act together. If instead we continue to kick the can down the road, a multi-State REFUGEE CRISIS is all but assured in the event Mother Nature doesn't break the drought within the next 2-3 years. Alas, this is not hyperbole. If water drops much more, power generation at Hoover dam and other electrical-generation sites along the Colorado River will cease. Southwestern states will not only contend with water cuts — which will itself lead to higher water costs for residents — but inability to keep the lights. If at that belated stage we finally choose to act, how much infrastructure for water desalanization or otherwise will we be able to build without reliable electric power. (We are faced with a Perfect Storm on the energy front too given that California has lost access to nuclear power generation in the Southern half of the state faster than the rate solar and wind farms have been built to offset those losses. Therefore there is no way to overstate the world of hurt Americans in "river States" will experience should water levels drop so low in the Colorado River that Hoover dam, among others, can no longer generate electricity.) If this nightmare should come to pass and millions of people are left without reliable power and water because of years of population expansion and "water warfare" (political failure), media will no doubt attempt to save face for embarrassed politicians by attributing all that terrorizes us to climate change. But that would be only part of the story. The balkanization of political-business-conservationists have left the region gridlocked for years — not just with respect to current and future "water security" but ANY form of large-scale infrastructure improvement. It's probably safe to say that MOST voters in "Blue States" such as California sincerely believe that if Republicans take control, nothing whatsoever will be done to mitigate climate change. But I beg to differ not because I am a Republican — I identify as Independent — but because I am a pragmatist and a realist: Democrat leaders, past and present, have been under tremendous pressure NOT to build new reservoirs even though voters approved such measures at the ballot box and, in Gavin Newsom's case, NOT to cut the regulatory red tape that would allow desalinization plants in Huntington Beach, CA and elsewhere in the State to go forward. One can count on the fact that environmental groups and California's notoriously complex regulatory structure — combined with NIMBYism — will derail any and all efforts to mitigate water shortages even though Climate Change all but assures us that the worst will come to pass! To cite a recent example, Gov. Newsom was praised by Left/Right-leaning media alike for supporting the Huntington Beach desalinization project — which was nevertheless derailed on environmental grounds. And therein lies the IRONY above all ironies: With Democrat leaders greatly dependent upon the blessing of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy, making tough but necessary decisions to improve water security unlikely to happen. So no matter how much lip-service Democrats in California and elsewhere give to climate crisis, the reality is that Democrat leaders are gripped by political paralysis. By contrast, would-be Republican leaders don't come into office with the expectation (or the donors behind them) that are known to demand and SUCCEED in getting politicians to back off infrastructure projects (after all, any infrastructure project will create some kind of environmental harm, therefore there is no infrastructure that is GOOD infrastructure if you are a Democrat governor). As such, it would be more likely should Californians elect a Republican governor, providing he/she possesses a genuine understanding of how severe California's water predicament is, that ~40M people who live in States along the Colorado River might spare the future for their children and grandchildren. Alas, voters will continue to elect politicians who are "serious" about climate change without appreciating just how much their hands are tied because doing anything about climate change, particularly when it comes to water and food security, is likely to engender opposition from environmental lobbies. Should this "analysis paralysis" continue, voters who reside in States that draw on the Colorado River elsewhere don't have the California option and will inevitably become resentful of the fact that California leadership refuses to make the hard choices (be a good neighbor). As we speak, the Federal government has quietly forced Southwestern States to cut their water use, citing a "tipping point" on the Colorado River. Tellingly, however, California has thus far remained the ONLY state to remain exempted from these restrictions. Ultimately the federal government has the right to overrule bickering Southwestern States to impose ~30% cuts across the board. What do we think that will do to water prices outside San Diego? As environmentally conscious citizens and voters, it is time to weigh out the consequences of killing the Colorado River alongside the inability to keep our schools, hospitals and Cities going once the taps begin to run dry and/or the Hoover dam can no longer produce electricity. If environmental groups genuinely believe that Climate Change is an existential threat, we can no longer afford to squabble as we did in the 1987-1992 drought — with little accounting for the fact that importing water for still-growing populations in the Southwest is itself unsustainable. Put on your thinking caps and visualize the future: There may come a day when California doesn't even have enough water in reservoirs to spare for the massive "complex" fires that the Sacramento Bee reported killed nearly 20% of Giant Sequoias in 2020 (more have been lost to wildfires since)! Yes, the health of the ocean is important — which is why we should consult and collaborate with Israel and others who have already taken the desalinization path. However, the ONE thing we do not have the option to do is to waste valuable time. A FAILURE TO PLAN for a future marked by prolonged drought is a PLAN TO FAIL. With only 2-3 years left for Mother Nature to break the drought before water levels fall too low to support electrical generation on the Colorado River, it may already be a case of too little, too late. Nonetheless, inability to face reality — which demands compromise among the various stakeholders — is rapidly setting the stage for a day when ~40M people up and down the Colorado River are displaced, forced by the rising costs of scarce water and food to move elsewhere in the country. We face a Sophie's Choice. But we have no choice but to knuckle down and make it.

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