The largest seawater desalting project on the west coast is approved
by JEC / OB Rag blog / August 28, 2008
The first of many desalination plants has been approved. The Poseidon Resources 50 million gallons a day desalination behemoth located in Carlsbad, California is slated to be operational by 2011. Desalination of seawater along the California coast is inevitable. As the competition over existing water supplies grows more intense and desperate, finding ways to create new water is a logical solution. A total of 20 desalination plants along the California coast are now under consideration. Poseidon Resources, a private for-profit corporation, has proposed building two 50 million gallon plants; in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, both co-located with existing power plants. Of the 20, Poseidon’s are the largest. The other 18 proposals average less than 10 million gallons a day. Of the 20, four are private commercial ventures, 16 are public water agencies projects.
The Surfrider Foundation and Coastkeeper challenged the Poseidon proposals over environmental impacts. Both organizations declared support for desalination as a concept, but they objected to the industrial size of Poseidon proposal. Poseidon’s projects will return 50 million gallons of warmed saltwater with twice the amount of salt back into the ocean. There is likely a difference between dumping 50 million gallons of warmed concentrated saltwater into the ocean at a single location compared to returning this byproduct of the reverse osmosis process through 10 separate outlets each dumping 5 million gallons. But it’s an order of magnitude that is difficult to nail down.
By the fact that the State Lands Commission, the last of a string of public agencies that have considered the project, has now given the go ahead, it can be said the arguments put forth by Surfrider and Coastkeeper were not persuasive. In the end it appears the compelling need for new water sources won the day. But given issues raised by Surfrider and Coastkeeper, were these decision makers just hostile to the environment? I find it hard to imagine that over 50 civic minded individuals serving on these various commissions and boards who considered Poseidon’s plans were indifferent to the impact on the beach and ocean. As it was, the decision makers did not have an alternative to Poseidon’s proposal. I have no doubt that Surfrider and Coastkeeper would have strengthened their position if they had offered a tangible alternative – if not Poseidon’s project, which project? How should we desalt seawater?
Unfortunately, Surfrider and Coastkeeper did what environmental groups so often do; they just said no. And now they’re behind the proverbial curve. Desalination is taking off – the water rush – California’s new gold rush, is on. Profit thirsty corporations have already seen the light. Now that Poseidon has led the way, expect more for-profit corporations to get involved. It’s a win/win investment, if you can secure permits. The interplay of current regulations and the nature of desalination has formed a perfect investment market. And unfortunately for the valid concerns expressed by Surfrider, there is a relationship between for-profit ventures and size.
For-profit desalting plants don’t have to be large. But large plants expand the economies of scale and profit potential. Bigger is better from an investor point of view. And, once built and once we depend on this new water supply, these plants become virtual monopolies with guaranteed survival. Induced by this profit potential, corporations will agitate for more access, less regulation, larger plants. Peering into the crystal ball can you see the day when Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant and the 50 million gallons of water it provides would be turned off? Shut down? Can you imagine the day when we no longer need the water? I can’t. So Poseidon is now a risk free investment with a guaranteed return; an investor’s dream.
And the future? Let’s look down the road, or into that ‘crystal ball’. Can you see more projects like Poseidon’s, maybe different corporations (so we can pretend there’s no water monopoly), with each corporation running a string of VLP’s (Very large plants) scattered along California’s coast. In this future we allowed ourselves to become dependant on water controlled by investors pursuing profit. We privatized our water. And we will pay in many different ways.
Consider the trade off, large verse small. Small facilities can blend in with coastal communities and spread the impact along hundreds of miles of coast. The Poseidon project is an industrial sized structure and blends in with nothing save the huge power plant next door. (Oh, a little side note, that power plant is slated to be decommissioned in a few years.) Small can be designed to be powered by wind and solar; making water only while the sun shines is not an issue. Large takes huge amounts of power and even with some wind and solar on site, is a big draw on the electrical grid. And to service the debt load, these large plants must operate 24/7. To do more Poseidon projects will require the electrical grid loads to be recalculated.
As Poseidon and Surfrider arm wrestled over the environmental questions, something managed to sneak in under the radar. So let me ask you, how do we feel about our water supply being owned and controlled by a private business? Poseidon is a private for profit business. Investors and stock holders expect a return. And it’s a no risk investment. Profit is suppose to be the reward for investors taking risks. But how do we let your water supply go out of business?
There is a reason water is under public jurisdiction. Life depends on water, no water, no life. It’s national security, its personal security. We’ve learned that our water supply is most secure when controlled for the public interest. Poseidon will filter seawater and sell it to us – for a profit. That’s why they’re in business. They are accountable to their owners and generating a profit, not to the public or the needs of the community.
Someone might try to soothe my worry by noting that Poseidon’s water is but a small piece of a much larger system. But desalination is a logical answer to our water dilemma, and, as such, a business opportunity that will attract more proposals similar to Poseidon’s. In the end, the problem with Poseidon’s proposal is that it’s Poseidon’s, a private for profit business. It can represent the first step in privatizing our public water system.
I would like the decision makers to address the question of privatization and take a position on the future of public control over our water. And Surfrider and Coastkeeper, if you’re listening, develop and present a real tangible plan for desalting seawater. Give the decision makers an alternative to the business plan offered by Poseidon.