Desalination shouldn’t be a ‘primary tactic,’ say Surfrider officials

Desalination shouldn’t be a ‘primary tactic,’ say Surfrider officials
Opponents of the new Carlsbad desalination plant voice numerous concerns with the facility, including potential hazards to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, pictured. Photo by Steve Puterski

CARLSBAD — Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the opening of the Carlsbad desalination plant, opposition to the facility remains concerned.

The Surfrider Foundation held its own, albeit, smaller press event on Monday to express concerns over the $1 billion plant.

“Even though the plant is online … desalination was jumped to as a seemingly first response,” said Surfrider Coastal Policy Coordinator Amanda Winchell. “Our position is it should not be used as a primary tactic.”

In a ceremony Monday, about 600 people from Poseidon Water, community leaders and local and state elected officials opened the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant.

It will produce 50 million gallons of potable water per day and will contribute about 10 percent of San Diego County’s water supply.

However, Surfrider’s concerns center on exhausting all options, including continuing conservation efforts and reclamation, before starting desalination. In addition, the intake from the Encinas Power Station, which uses seawater to cool its turbines, then pumps the water to the desalination plant for processing, may be detrimental to marine life, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report.

Winchell cited an example in Israel, where the Israelis used intense conservation measures to cut down consumption, including agricultural use. Ironically, IDE Technologies, a worldwide leader in desalination plant design based in Israel, will operate the Carlsbad plant.

“California as a whole throws away 4.3 million acre-feet of water per year,” Winchell said. “Purifying that is substantially cheaper than importing water … and more energy efficient than desalination.”

Winchell, though, said recent steps mandating water consumption is a step in the right direction. Still, the obligation mandating ratepayers in the county paying for the plant is another issue.

Poseidon Water officials said Monday water users will see their bill increase by $5 per month.

“How many households actually are supplied with water that might come from the desal facility?” Winchell asked. “That’s only 100,000 households. How many do we have in the county? They are all paying that extra $5 a month.”

In a press release, Surfrider “stresses” the plant is not the solution for the drought-stricken state or states facing similar circumstances.

According to a statement from Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager for Surfrider’s San Diego chapter, the facility poses risks to marine habitats as well as has “significant” economic impacts.

“If you look to the examples of where desalination has worked successfully around the world, you will see that those nations worked diligently to reduce demand before turning to desalination,” Chunn-Herr said. “We have done the opposite here in San Diego, and now that we are seeing real progress with conservation due to the drought mandates, and the Carlsbad plant is coming online, we can see what a predicament this 30-year take-or-pay contract puts us in. The order in which water supply options are implemented matters tremendously.”

Chunn-Herr and her colleagues argue that even if the plant operates without a hitch, there are still “significant” issues.

First, the Pacific Ocean is not unlimited and the energy requirements and greenhouse gas emissions of the plant make it the worst option in light of climate change. In addition, the rate increases have consequences and poor planning could preclude environmentally and fiscally preferable options from moving forward.

According to Poseidon Water officials, the facility is the first one in the U.S. to have a net zero percent carbon footprint.

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