The Poseidon Adventure: De-Salination and Why Environmental Groups Are So Reactive

by on November 27, 2007 · 6 comments

in Environment, Organizing

by J.E.C.

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?

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

PiePipper November 27, 2007 at 6:23 pm

I don’t see any problem with some legitimate business making a living and providing jobs while providing a service – whether it’s delivering electricity or fresh water.


OB Joe November 27, 2007 at 11:39 pm

So great points! You raised the need to find additional water sources. This is the main thing. But I think the whole eco thing is more complicated. Take a look at what’s out there at the next Earth Fair and you will see a lot of corporate sponsorship, a lot of different causes and groups vying for the resources and attention. But you may get a whiff of a sell-out. The original Earth Day started in 1970 was coming from a genuine sense of ecology. Now, it’s much more business-oriented.
Speaking about business, there are many green businesses and products these days. This is part of the context of today. We’re actually surrounded with business responses to the green shopping trends of more and more consumers.
And I think that other factors are out there: Al Gore sure has raised a lot of consciousness about Global Warming. So this raise in thinking is also part of the toss-up.
However, your degradation of reusable water sources by calling it “toilet to tap” falls into conservative politicians trap by controlling the debate about reusing the water we already do have.
Also, I’d like to see you address the fact that most of the water that you say we “steal” goes to agriculture. For example, rice – a very water-intensive crop- is grown out in Imperial County, a desert! This is really not very efficient nor reasonable. Growing rice in the desert. Incredible! Very inefficient water usage and management.


Scott Maloni November 28, 2007 at 10:13 am

This is the most thoughtful critique of the opposition to San Diego’s seawater desalination project that I have read in ten years. Well done.

The key point, Surfrider and Coastkeeper do not represent the the majority of us who consider ourselves “pro environment”. If these groups oppose a specific project on environemntal grounds then provide scientific proof, not ad nauseam fearmongering. Then take the responsibility to suggest feasible alternatives.

Short of this, Surfrider and Coastkeeper are destroying their credibility


Stu November 28, 2007 at 10:24 pm

Water ,the majority or the population has no idea where it comes from or how much it costs to get to this cosatal desert the Surfriders do as do the Coastkeepers. The question appears to be will Posiden with their massive desal plant do damage to the environment and to what extent. Yeah they probably will do some Their scientists have tried to explain and examine that impact. That is a very difficult thing to do until the operation is under way. At least they are trying to do something and trying to mitigate it if possible. Posiden is making an effort and spending a lot of cash up front way before they produce a drop of product. They deserve a profit. If they harm some thing in the process and it can’t be fixed the production will probably end and it can be counted as a lesson learned.

The process they propose is not perfect, But they are trying and that counts. Like JEC said let the nay sayers propose something and then roust up investors to make it happen.
We, the population have to get up off our ass and make something happen. It is pretty obvious conservation won’t work and even if it does it won’t be enough. May be if water becomes as expensive as gas will conservation begin to help.
One thing is for sure here in So Cal water or will be Water is the new oil


Gary Ghirardi November 29, 2007 at 6:07 am

Water utilities need to be the venue of the public domain whatever the solutions or technology adapted to the task. These are issues of public concern and should remain so. The air that you breath, the water you drink and the electricity you require should remain or be returned to the public sector. This is the first issue that should be resolved and it should be done so by public referendum without the burden of an unequal advertising budget as an obstacle to forming public opinion. Remember the fiasco of promises laid upon a naive public over the privatization of electricity by the private companies that promised a more competitive environment would result in savings to the public. What the public received were manufactured outages and escalating rates instead of savings, And ENRON. Don’t be fooled twice.


Ecoanne Cox February 26, 2008 at 8:28 am

Hi! There,

From North Sea Beach to Ocean Beach. What starts up on your side of the World ends up here pretty soon!

Reading your blog the words of the Song come to me
“When will they ever learn?” Why won’t politicians ever
look beyond the ends of their noses? The Conservatives here “Sold off the Family Jewelery” The Railways, the Power companies (except nuclear), London Transport, Telecoms and even security and prison guards. These are all areas which had previously been regarded as strategic.
The next scenario in both our Countries is that with increasing resource shortages only the richest companies and the richest people will get a share. Is this what the
Free World wants?

Save energy today. Tomorrow may be too late.


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