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
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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