Why Building the Carlsbad Desalination Plant is a Good Thing for San Diego

by on December 5, 2012 · 4 comments

in California, Economy, Environment, Health

The San Diego County Water Authority gave the nod Friday, November 30, to a thirty year water purchase deal that will clear the way for a privately constructed desalination plant to operate in the north county.

Frankly, I don’t see this as a controversial decision. I’ve read the arguments pro and con. I think the desal plant is a good idea. Let me explain why.

I lived on an island in the Caribbean (St. Thomas) for eight years that was dependent on desalinated water. The resort where I worked made its own water. From my point of view it worked pretty well.

Given that I was management at the resort complex, I’ve seen the reverse osmosis process up close–it was a critical part of our operations. The generator that protected the “plant” from frequent power outages was the most well-maintained and scrutinized piece of equipment on the property. And I can attest that the reverse osmosis process isn’t pretty or wonderful for the environment.

The water on St. Thomas was expensive; conservation and recycling were part of life. We had cisterns to collect rainwater. The island’s golf course charged an arm and a leg to for “greens” fees, even though the grass was brown much of the year. Toilet flushing was ruled by the dictum: “If it’s brown, send it down. If it’s yellow let it mellow.”

From what I could tell, after thirty years of trying to build a desalination plant, after clearing all the (good and necessary) environmental hoops in California, the best argument against building a desal facility came down to the claim that the water coming out of Carlsbad would be expensive.

Given that the government entities involved here weren’t interested or able to build a plant on their own, it stands to reason that a private outfit will be making a profit off the deal. Nobody knows how much profit, and that is upsetting to a lot of folks. That’s still no reason not to do this.

There are folks that say there are plenty of other ways we can get water, which may or may not be cheaper. I say great. Let’s do those things, too.

Because if you believe that we’ve got some serious climate change coming down the road, then you have to understand that the “natural” sources of water San Diego draws from are not a safe bet.

There are folks that say the amount of energy consumed by the desal process will actually be contributing to climate change. And they’re probably right. But building or not building a reverse osmosis facility isn’t really going to change the usage of fossil fuel energy.

A better use for our energy at this point would be to go after the subsidies for the dirty fuel industry so that the development of renewable sources of energy becomes competitive. What we currently pay for gas and oil has almost no relationship to what its production or ultimate costs are.

My point here is that cheap water (or cheap gas, for that matter) is no bargain. If we want to be better stewards for our planet, it’s time we started paying the true cost of using up our resources.

And while we’re at it, it’s time that we started paying the true cost of labor. Minimum wage employees at Wally’s World cost taxpayer monies. It’s a subsidy for yet another industry. If we expect people to pay the high costs of unsubsidized natural resources & energy, they’ll have to be paid accordingly.

I know that this post will anger and/or upset many of my associates. I know, I know, that I’m taking the same stand (on the desal plant) that the minions of Manchesterland are promulgating. I want to make it clear—very clear—that most of the other folks that write for the San Diego Free Press don’t share my view.

I’ll admit I’ve given short shift to in terms of all the weighty tomes that have been published about the value or not of desalination. I actually did read a lot on the topic leading up to today. A lot of coffee beans died to keep me awake during that process.

Ultimately I felt that a link-filled essay full of arguments pro and con wouldn’t be worthwhile in this instance. The decision has been made. Thirty years of hearings, litigation and investigations are over.

I’m going with my gut on this one. I say build the desal plant.

As always, the comment section is open for you to weigh in on this topic. Fire away.

Editor: The above was taken from Doug Porter’s daily column “The Starting Line” at the San Diego Free Press.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sean M December 5, 2012 at 10:14 am

SD’s weekly water main breaks will re-salinate the water.


F Passarelli December 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm

There is great praise for the Reverse Osmosis plant in the Caribbean (St. Thomas) while you lived there for eight years and justifiably they took the advantage of the technology and installed it of the time. Now San Diego has a 30 year water supply agreement for a technology eight years old plus at this time with little effort or consideration for a superior technology with less energy consumption and no brine return to the ocean


Les Birdsall December 5, 2012 at 4:24 pm

St. Thomas may need a desal plant, San Diego doesn’t, at least not yet.

“The claim that the water coming out of Carlsbad would be expensive.” is a reality, not just a possibility. It’s very expensive, more expensive than every other available source of water and the County Water Authority is aiming to pay the highest possible cost by purchasing it. Hell, it’s only money but people have to eat too.

This project makes no financial sense for San Diego at the present time. Desalinization should be a national project at other locations. DOD is now doing this.


Doug P December 8, 2012 at 6:34 am

Efficiencies in desalination have grown to the point that it is cheaper than pumping water 300 miles from natural fresh water sources. In terms of damage to the environment it is less damaging than draining our precious watershed. However, desalinating sea water is not as cheap as purifying sewage water.


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