San Diego Coastkeeper opposes desalination, sort of. Surfrider says they support desalination, in theory. Just not the plants proposed by the Poseidon Resources Corporation for Huntington Beach and Carlsbad. Coastkeeper and Surfrider’s opposition is normal fare for environmental groups. It’s what they do, oppose. React to the initiatives of others. And that could be why, after decades of activism, environmental groups remain on the political fringe, even when the vast majority of the people, 75% or more by most measures, consider themselves environmentalists, or at least concerned about the environment.
If green is so popular, why are the national environmental groups like Surfrider, Coastkeeper/Waterkeeper, and the Sierra Club not more mainstream. As far as I can see, The AFL-CIO and Teamsters carry more clout with less than 15% of the workforce unionized. Why? Let’s consider the issues surrounding proposals to desalt seawater in Southern California.
First, let’s agree that water is important. In Southern California water is worth more than gold. Los Angeles, like San Diego, has a local water supply. A hundred years ago it was estimated that the LA River could support a year round population of 400,000. San Diego was blessed with more rivers, though smaller. Besides the San Diego river, we have the San Luis Rey, Sweetwater, and Otay rivers. Elsewhere in the country our “rivers” would be called creeks, or streams. But when it’s all you got, and they flow year round, we cling to our “rivers”. In San Diego every river or creek was damned or sucked dry by 1940.
Clearly all of Southern California depends on water transported (taken or stolen) from somewhere else. LA grew by stealing the Owens River, a 120 miles away. LA turned a green fertile valley into a desert; the Owens Lake became the Owens dry lake, today a major source of dust and air pollution. About 90% of San Diego’s water comes from somewhere else. The Colorado River and the Feather River are part of the central valley system that transports water through a labyrinth of pipes and pumps spanning 400 miles. So much water is now taken from the Colorado River that the river no longer flows into the Sea of Cortez. Likewise, so much water is drawn from California’s delta that the ecology has been altered; land built by the silt from the rivers is sinking while saltwater, once held back by the pressure from the river’s flow is now encroaching further upstream. Our current water system has consequences, serious consequences. Ecologies are destroyed and huge amounts of energy are required to move all that water over such great distances.
Did greedy white men sit down a hundred years ago and plan this system? If they did then they were visionaries, better than the great soothsayer Nostradamus. Bit by bit, row by row, the water system that supports nearly 20 million people was pieced together, as ideas came forward, as opportunities presented themselves. And it was the folks who proposed the ideas that framed the issues, defined the problems, but took responsibility for meeting people’s needs.
So, what’s so good or bad about the desalting plants proposed by Poseidon? On October 18, 2007 Coastkeeper sent out an urgency email to get it’s members to attend a hearing of the State Lands Commission to oppose Poseidon’s proposed Carlsbad desalination plant. According to the email,
Coastkeeper is working with the Surfrider Foundation and a statewide coalition of environmental groups to stop a privately-owned desalination plant planned for Carlsbad.While creating local water supplies is crucial for San Diego’s future, the proposed project would be the largest and most damaging ocean desalination facility in the western hemisphere. It would destroy marine life and ecosystems in one of Southern California’s last remaining coastal lagoons, and as the single most energy intensive water supply strategy would actually exacerbate global warming concerns. Tell the State Lands Commission that you insist on the most environmentally friendly alternatives to enhance San Diego’s water supplies.”
Sounds terrible. The most damaging desalination facility in the western hemisphere! That’s a mouth full. So I read on, and on, and on. Like peeling an onion, I went through layer after layer trying to find Coastkeeper’s proposal for environmentally friendly alternatives to enhance San Diego’s water supplies.
A few days later Surfrider published an opinion piece in the Union-Tribune opposing the Carlsbad project. In the opening paragraph Surfrider declared their support of desalination, as a concept. And then proceeded to repeat their opposition to the Carlsbad project. I checked Surfrider’s website in hopes of gaining insight as to what a Surfrider desalination project might look like. I was disappointed.
What’s so bad about Poseidon? At first blush the project doesn’t seem so bad, given current conditions. Poseidon has proposed identical plants in Huntington Beach and Carlsbad. Each is tied to an existing natural gas fired power plant that uses what’s called once through cooling. Simply put, Poseidon would take the 100 million gallons a day of warmed discharge water, pipe that water through a pre-filter and reverse osmosis filter, pump 50 million gallons of cleaned, processed drinking water into the local water system while returning 50 million gallons back to the ocean. The kicker, the salt content of the water returned to the sea would be doubled, from 33 ppm to 66 ppm. Yet, the projects are moving forward. As reported by Michael Burge in the Union-Tribune (11/17/07) the State Coastal Commission approved the Poseidon proposal but with strings – 20 strings to be exact. The Surfrider representative said the organization will “weigh it’s legal options”.
Opposition to the project, which include a number of organizations in addition to Coastkeeper and Surfrider, are concerned that sea water desalination might replace conservation or reclamation and reuse of water. It should be noted that Mayor Sanders just vetoed the toilet to tap project proposed for San Diego even though the city of San Diego is not actively pursuing desalting projects at this time.
Other reasons cited for opposing Poseidon’s plans, not in any priority order:
- harming the ocean environment, by the water intake methods, discharge methods and increased salinity;
- the plants are tied to aging OTC Gas fired power plants that are slated for retirement sometime in the future;
- concern about private for profit companies getting involved in water, which in California has almost exclusively been a public venture.
An article by Bettina Boxall in the LA Times (3/14/04) reported that there are more than 20 desalting proposals now under consideration for the California coast. Poseidon represents two of those projects. But Poseidon is private, most are proposed by public agencies, including the progressive City of Santa Cruz.
The fact is every water source in California is challenged, over drawn. Aquifers are drying up, every creek or river is damned, and yes, 60% of the water used in Southern California is used to water plants, yards, freeway landscaping and food – orchards, farms and fields. San Diego Coastkeeper’s website on “Securing San Diego’s Water Future” considers cost, environment energy used, reliability and feasibility and ranks conservation as their first choice. I question the feasibility of conservation. I was born in Southern California. I was raised not to take water for granted. But 80% of the State’s population today comes from someplace else, mostly from places with lush lawns and abundant water supplies. Changing the personal habits of 30 million people seems a lot less likely than desalting water. Coastkeeper’s next choices are potable reuse followed by non-potable reuse. Appears Coastkeeper and Mayor Sanders are looking at different numbers. Sanders vetoed the toilet to tap proposal as being too expensive though Coastkeeper and Surfrider feel these options are more cost effective than desalination.
But in the end environmental groups must start to take some responsibility. Take a risk and actually propose a plan. Our best science tells us that the Colorado River is in serious decline and we will start losing a portion of our allocation. We also know that water from the delta cannot be sustained for a number of reasons, global warming included. If sea levels rise just another foot or two the fresh water intakes in the delta will no longer be sucking in freshwater. We must find alternative water sources – not to support more growth, but to replace what we are about to lose. I hope the next desalination proposal comes from Coastkeeper and Surfrider. If Poseidon’s idea is bad, give us something to work on. Give us something good.
I’ll prime the pump by first suggesting that the State legislature task the UC system to engage in a friendly competition to design the best management practices for desalting water. I can imagine a series of small desalting units, powered by photovoltaics located every few miles along the coast. Harvest the salt for commercial use, and spread the impact to avoid concentrating the harm to the marine environment. Why not?