Archive | January, 2011

Dwyer Students Protest Solar Panels Placement

Dwyer Students Protest Solar Panels Placement

About 200 students from Dwyer Middle School in Huntington Beach, CA, marched from their school to nearby Lake Park to protest the planned installation of solar panels on

Dwyer protest

Dwyer students speak out at protest in Lake Park. Photo: John Earl, SCV

the grass field in front of their school. Parents’ groups and students say that they were not adequately informed about the plans and that the solar panels will block the view of the school, which is recognized as an important historical site. School officials say that the public was fully informed throughout the process but strong opposition to the plans came only after it would be too expensive to move the panels to a new location. The protesters focused on critcizing Chevron, which the Huntington Beach City School District has contracted with to provide solar energy panels for five schools, including Dwyer, Hawes, Seacliff, Smith and Sowers to provide 33 percent of districts electrical power–at a minimum estimated savings of $75,000 a year. The students plan an overnight protest on the school site. A full report will appear in the Surf City Voice www.surfcityvoice.com over the weekend.

Addendum: Apparently there is no “overnight” protest at the Dwyer school afterall. The report was based on information posted on signs distributed by protest organizers earlier in the week. There is no such overnight protest, however.

Also, on another note, foundations for the solar panels have already been installed on the lawn at the front of the school.

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Desalination: Focus on affordable solutions

Desalination: Focus on affordable solutions

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

Debbie Cook is the former mayor of Huntington Beach. As a member of the Huntington Beach City Council, she opposed the Poseidon desalination project proposed for the city. She served on the state’s Desalination Task Force and has written extensively on the relationship between water and energy as well as peak oil. Her articles have appeared in a wide array of publications and she is well known for her expertise on energy related issues. This is the last of three parts.

Worldwide, humans have quickly and wastefully consumed water from the cheapest sources by over-pumping aquifers and over-allocating rivers. We’ve turned to technology to eke out more but technology is not without its costs. Every remaining incremental gallon of water will come at a higher and higher price. Are we nearing a breaking point?

Prior to the 2008 run-up in oil prices, gasoline, like water, was widely believed to be inelastic–that consumption of such an essential commodity would grow despite the price. But as gasoline prices headed toward $4/gallon, discretionary spending shrank and the economy shrank.

The rising costs of essentials like food, shelter, energy, and water have a disproportionate impact on low-income households. Low-income assistance programs for water vary significantly from one jurisdiction or utility to the next. For example, in California, San Jose Water provides a 15 percent discount on the total bill while Valencia Water provides a 50 percent discount off the monthly service charge. Such programs shift the costs onto remaining consumers and businesses many of whom are also facing economic distress. Are these programs sustainable in the face of continuous water rate increases and growing economic challenges?

“A solution isn’t a solution if it isn’t affordable.”

Those were the cautionary words of Cuban energy expert Mario Avila who visited California in September of 2010. Cuba has lived through a number of energy crises. The one with which I was familiar was the oil shock that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Mario explained that it was the lesser known electricity crisis following the 2005 hurricane season that exposed the vulnerability of their water system. Two power plants were destroyed by two storms plunging the island into relentless daily blackouts. Without electricity, water didn’t move, it could not be treated, and it could not be discharged. Castro declared an “energy revolution” and within a six-month window, thousands of “social workers” were deployed to inventory and replace every incandescent light bulb on the island and promote zero-interest loans for efficient appliances. Rather than replace the two large power plants, the nation built smaller, distributed power plants improving the resiliency of their system and restoring power and water.

Resilience should be the goal of water planners but most options that improve resilience–water harvesting, conservation, demand management– receive a tepid reception. One major reason is because water providers are paid to sell water, not conserve it. And there isn’t an ongoing assurance for funding conservation or efficiency. When budgets get tight, the conservation budget is the first to be eliminated as was done last year by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). Ironically, while eliminating the conservation fund, MWD was approving subsidies for desalination and raising water rates because their conservation message had resulted in lower water consumption. Conservation and low tech options for reducing water demand will never compete against capital projects in the current regulatory framework.

Level the playing field
It isn’t surprising that an industry that can’t even quantify water in a consistent unit of measure (acre-feet, gallons, cubic meters, units, cubic foot), would apply different criteria to different water options. The result is a misleading comparison between options.

Here’s an example. Say a proponent tells you that the new desalination project will produce water at $1000/acre-foot. You’re told that your city is buying water from MWD for $750/acre-foot. The natural reaction will be to compare $750 to $1000. But MWDʼs actual production costs are closer to $200 of that $750 figure. That means $550 is covering their fixed costs. So even if you reduce your imported water by 10 percent, the remaining costs (including your city’s 90 percent remainder) will have to be leveled across all water purchasers. Communities that are not the recipients of the desalinated water will nevertheless be footing the bill through subsidies and cost sharing.

Similarly there has not been a fair method for comparing conservation measures to traditional water sources. For example, the cost effectiveness of rainwater tanks has traditionally been calculated by comparing the cost of installation against the savings on household bills. But this ignores the broader cost savings to the community in deferred water infrastructure, storm water infrastructure and environmental externalities like greenhouse gas emissions. When those are accounted for, rainwater harvesting is superior to desalination.

A model already exists for a regulatory framework that would address such conflicting motivations. In 1982 California became the first state to adopt an electric revenue decoupling mechanism. This gave utilities the incentive to promote conservation and efficiency because their ability to recoup their fixed costs was decoupled from the volume of their sales. In addition to decoupled rates, California has a “loading order” of energy preferences that place priority on the least expensive and most environmentally protective resources. When meeting California’s energy needs, conservation and efficiency are considered before additional generation is added.

A sustainable conservation budget would give priority to cost effective programs like water capture, drip irrigation, water recycling, low-flow devices, and water management programs that reduce demand, costs, and bring true resilience to the water sector.

Left to compete on an uneven field, conservation will remain the bastard step-child to desalination. In 2006, many communities in Australia were offering substantial rebates on water tanks. By 2007, demand was so high that prisoners were put to work building tanks. Buoyed by studies that demonstrated other options would be more cost effective than desalination, twenty-three government leaders pledged $250 million toward their goal of reaching 500,000 households. Then in 2008, with the collapsing economy and in the midst of the desalination boom, the Bligh government dismissed wide scale rollout of water tanks. Some officials sensed a threat of competition to their capital projects, going so far as to suggest the licensing of water tanks so as to enable levying taxes on rainwater collected.

Remove the rose-colored glasses
Technology has its place. But it is not magic and shouldn’t be seen as the solution to all our problems. That which is technologically feasible is not necessarily economically feasible. Desalination cannot be “greened” by utilizing solar or wind energy for its energy requirements. Not only is the scale of such a proposal enormous, it ignores the fact that all renewable energy resources are backstopped by fossil fuels. Moreover, the price of such a proposal would significantly increase the cost of desalination, exacerbating the economic problems of water pricing and availability.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned over the past eight years of observing the desalination/water industry is that we create our own problems. And we are stuck in a perpetual feedback loop applying fixes to yesterday’s solutions. That’s the perfect recipe for rear-ending our future. The remedy is to increase our awareness of unintended consequences and the dynamic relationships between water, the environment, and human settlements. It is a systems thinking approach that starts with a willingness to open our minds and apply critical thinking.

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Desalination – Yesterday’s Solution: Exhume the dead

Desalination – Yesterday’s Solution: Exhume the dead

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

Debbie Cook is the former mayor of Huntington Beach. As a member of the Huntington Beach City Council, she opposed the Poseidon desalination project proposed for the city. She served on the state’s Desalination Task Force and has written extensively on the relationship between water and energy as well as peak oil. Her articles have appeared in a wide array of publications and she is well known for her expertise on energy related issues. This is part 2 of three parts.

Everyone has skeletons in their closets, desalination is no exception. Burying them does a disservice to the millions of public dollars that have been invested. Let’s celebrate their weaknesses so that we may never repeat their mistakes. There may be many dozens of such projects, but here are a few that have experienced their share of controversy: Santa Barbara, Key West, Santa Catalina, and Yuma.

  • Santa Barbara’s project was mothballed before a single drop of water was introduced into its distribution system.
  • Key West built a 130 mile pipeline and implements water rationing when necessary, thus avoiding operation of its plant.
  • Catalina Island hasn’t operated its plant in years, relying on price signals with water rates that are perhaps the highest in the nation. Their top water tier is over $10,000/acre-foot. In response to the utility’s rate increase request, the California Public Utilities Commission had this to say about the Catalina facility: “…for Catalina Island in 2005, desalinated water accounted for only 25 percent of total water production, but desalination accounted for approximately 70 percent of total electricity usage.” Despite repeated requests, the operator, Southern California Edison, would not divulge information about the plants operation.
  • The 72mg/d Yuma desalter, constructed by the Bureau of Reclamation, was built to comply with a treaty with Mexico. It was completed in 1992, operated at 1/3 capacity for 6 months and then shut down in 1993. Other, less expensive options for treaty compliance made it unnecessary.

In addition to these projects, there are many pilot projects that litter Southern California. I’ve often wondered why every proposed project has to be preceded by a pilot project. There is one in Los Angeles County that has already expended $23 million of public money. It follows one built in Long Beach which follows one built in Carlsbad which follows one… You get the picture. It’s insane.

Go slow, include all stakeholders
Australia began its desalination building boom in 2004 amid a prolonged drought, ultimately committing $10 billion for six projects. Public participation consisted of after-the- fact review of incomplete details. Construction contracts even contain backed out details of critical information. Decisions were made at Cabinet level and one officialʼs rationale for excluding the public was that information would be “incomprehensible” to the them.

Officials further aggravated their problems by approving multiple projects that competed with each other for materials and labor. Perth, completed its first project in 2006 with the lowest projected water costs of $1677/acre-foot. Later projects came in significantly higher. The Productivity Commission, the government’s independent research and advisory body, announced in July an investigation into the financial and environmental impact of Australia’s water sector. A final report is expected in July. The number of customers seeking financial assistance has risen by 20 percent in two years. The auditor-general of Australia has estimated that the $5.7 billion Wonthaggi plant in Victoria will cost $24 billion over the life of its 28-year contract11 and water increases of 20 percent per year for five years have been recommended. The first political backlash occurred in November’s elections where the Labor party took a beating. With rain returning and reservoirs rising to normal, the Queensland/ Gold Coast Tugun plant and Victoria’s Wonghaggi plant are proposed to be placed on standby to ease the burden on ratepayers.

Assess the weak links
Energy makes up the lion’s share of the costs of producing water, whether from the reverse osmosis process or a thermal process. Like the oft reported stories of “new energy” sources, the desalination industry is constantly bragging about new technologies that have reduced the energy demands of their process. I hope they are true, but until the industry can convert those promises into lower costs, they are no better than the hype of biofuels or perpetual motion.

Despite the widespread belief that the Middle East has unlimited energy resources, both water security and energy security are a real threat to their economy and world security. How long will the Middle East, where as much as 90 percent of water is coming from ocean desalination be able to afford the luxury of desalinated water? According to some reports, water rates in Saudi Arabia cover less than half of one percent of the cost of producing desalinated water. Subsidizing water, food, and gasoline is seen as a way of sharing the country’s oil wealth. But the absence of any price signal has led to some of the highest per capita water consumption in the world, and highest greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Saudi Arabia now ranks 6th in greenhouse gas emissions, half directly attributable to desalination. Authorities are straining under the burden of water and energy demands pushed by burgeoning population growth. Despite allocating $150 billion over the next five years for power and water projects, they have been forced to abandon their goal of becoming self-sufficient in wheat production. With natural gas in short supply, the feedstock to produce electricity will continue to be oil. The irony is that oil revenues make up 90 percent of the Saudi government’s budget so every barrel diverted to water is a barrel that cannot be sold on the market to fill state coffers.

The rising costs of energy are not just impacting the cost of electricity, they impact the entire desalination supply chain: mining of materials, (e.g. 6 million pounds of titanium alone are required for the worldʼs largest desalination plant in Saudi Arabia); manufacturing and shipping of components; construction; continuous supply of chemicals that are derived from fossil fuels; maintaining equipment; and any necessary treatment for the discharged brine and chemicals. We have long assumed that water was the limiting resource for societies, but water is just the end product of a very long supply chain, with any link capable of affecting reliability.

To be continued.

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Water Down the Drain: SoCal squanders badly needed rainwater, but there are solutions

Water Down the Drain: SoCal squanders badly needed rainwater, but there are solutions

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

Southern California (SoCal) imports about half of its water from northern California and the Colorado River. 

Question: What’s wrong with that picture? 

Answer: It threatens the ecosystems of both those sources of water and contributes to global climate change via the enormous energy expended in transporting water over long distances. 

What’s more, SoCal manages its rainfall through a storm drain system that directly contributes to ocean pollution while squandering opportunities to put a precious source of water to use. 

No wonder northern Californians are reputed to be less than enamored with their neighbors to the south. 

The heavy downpours which made December 2010 one of the wettest in SoCal history serve as a reminder that, despite being semi-arid, the region’s rainfall is by no means inconsequential and might be put to better use than overwhelming sewer systems and polluting coastal waters. 

SoCal is home to two-thirds of the state’s population yet receives just one-third of the rainfall and has relied on imported water for over a century. The problems this imbalance has created are now well known. 

The ecosystems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River are both in dire straits from the demands placed on them and management shortfalls. The California State Water Project, which pumps the water some 400 miles and up 2000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains, is the state’s single largest user of electricity and consequently a significant source of global warming-producing greenhouse gases. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has calculated that “it takes up to twenty times more energy to supply water to southern California through the State Water Project as it does to supply groundwater locally.” 

Water experts agree no one solution is likely to completely solve the southern region’s water supply problem. With that said, a study recently published jointly by the NRDC and the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), “A Clear Blue Future”, outlines practical measures, collectively referred to as low-impact development (LID), which could be applied to homes and businesses by developers and governments to put SoCal on a better footing toward a sustainable water future. 

The main thrust of LID is simple: prevent rainwater from entering storm drains by capturing and repurposing it where it lands while simultaneously replenishing groundwater aquifers.

For homeowners, LID means funneling rain gutter outflow either directly onto local landscaping, via downspouts and hosing, or alternatively into rain barrels or cisterns for future irrigation. It also means grading driveways to prevent runoff onto streets and sidewalks and choosing pervious paving materials (like bricks, tiles or permeable cement) specifically designed to foster seepage into groundwater. Businesses would do the same and could also collect cistern water for toilet flushing and install so-called “living” rooftops to further minimize runoff. 

Developers would do their part by promoting water-retaining landscape designs and permeable paving. 

The internet is fairly awash in information about rainwater collection systems, some do-it-yourself and at low cost. They can be as small as 50 gallons or up to 25,000 gallons for large scale applications and can pay for themselves through savings on water bills. 

The NRDC-UCSB report also calls on municipalities and governments to require LID practices for new developments, redevelopments or retrofits and to offer tax incentives and/or subsidies to homeowners and businesses that adopt LID strategies. 

The beauty of allowing rain to percolate through soil on site is it prevents urban runoff which, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is the greatest non-point source of water pollution. Streets and sidewalks look clean after a rain because all the oil, grime and trash gets washed into storm drains, along with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, animal waste and bacteria from landscaping, all of which are harmful to aquatic life. Directing rainwater instead onto landscaping allows the soil to naturally filter out pollutants. What’s more, rainwater is easier on plants because it does not contain the chlorine that is added to tap water. 

By raising the levels of groundwater aquifers in the SoCal region, more potable water would be made available locally for extraction and at lower cost in terms of both money and energy. And, together with rainwater collected for irrigation, the demand placed on imperiled, far-away water sources is eased. 

Lest anyone think SoCal does not get enough rain to make harvesting it worthwhile, consider that most cities in the area average between 10 and 17 inches of yearly rainfall spread out over about 33 days, and just one-half inch of rain on a 1000 square foot roof could yield over 300 gallons of water. 

Consider also the NRDC-UCSB study’s estimate that implementation of LID practices in California could, by 2030, save 1,225,500 megawatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power well over 100,000 homes. Similarly, relying less on water from energy-intensive sources like northern California or from desalination (see “Unlocking Solutions”)  could reduce annual atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide by over 500,000 metric tons, an impact equivalent to eliminating nearly 100,000 cars per year. 

The cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach recently implemented pilot rainwater harvesting programs which provided a limited number of property owners with free rain barrels. San Diego undertook a study at selected municipal sites to figure out the best roofing materials and rain barrel collection systems. Today, property owners in Santa Monica can earn rebates on rain barrel or cistern installations. In June 2010, a first-in-the-nation ordinance took effect in Tucson requiring new commercial  constructions to meet 50 percent of their landscape demand using harvested rainwater.

A sobering article in the Los Angeles Times on January 14 reminds us that, despite the record rainfall of late, the Pacific Ocean is nevertheless in the grip of powerful La Niña conditions which generally portend an extra dry winter for SoCal. Whether or not the rest of the season will be as dry as some meteorologists are predicting, the pressure to locate more potable water will be increasing in the future as a result of population expansion. The U.S. Census Bureau is predicting that populations in the region’s already four largest counties – Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Riverside – will by 2050 have swelled by anywhere from 32 to 122 percent. 

Simply harvesting rain could go a long way toward helping all SoCal cities reach the 20 percent per-capita reduction in urban water consumption by year 2020, as mandated in the Water Conservation Act of 2009 enacted by then Governor Schwarzenegger.

Tiered water rates, where water guzzlers pay more for their greater consumption, are becoming commonplace and also foster conservation by pinching consumers in the pocketbook for the wasteful practices ratcheting up their water bill. As example, the Metropolitan Water District of SoCal estimates that up to 70 percent of residential water use is for irrigation which could be scaled way back by replacing lawns with drought-resistant plants. 

Huntington Beach
The city of Huntington Beach (HB) stands out among SoCal communities for not yet implementing tiered water rates, primarily for lack of a billing system that supports it, according to the city’s Water Conservation Coordinator Bill Crisp. HB’s official website talks up the merits of installing rain barrels, and Crisp says the city is seriously kicking around the idea of selling rain barrels for cheap to residents but needs to figure out first where to store them. 

However, HB does already have an ordinance limiting yard irrigation to cooler parts of the day and just once weekly during the rainy season and three times a week in April through October, though the program runs primarily on the honor system. And, the city participates with 12 water agencies in the area in offering rebates of $1 per square foot for turf removal. Applications are available on the city’s website, and although the deadline for submission is January 31, Crisp hopes the program will be extended another year. Rebates for other water-saving upgrades – rotating sprinkler heads and weather-based irrigation controllers – are available as well.

 HB’s website touts that water consumption per household has dropped 20 percent over the last decade, largely through installation of water-saving upgrades like low-flow toilets and faucet aerators. Under the Water Conservation Act, the per capita daily consumption goal for the coastal SoCal area, which includes Huntington Beach, is 149 gallons by 2020. As is true for other seaside communities which view the ocean as their own backyard, HB has already surpassed this goal at its current per capita consumption of 106 gallons per day. 

Nevertheless, Crisp concedes residents could do a lot more to save on irrigation which still accounts for at least half the typical household’s water usage. He encourages people to look into harvesting their own rainwater and to visit the Shipley Nature Center on Goldenwest Street to experience the beauty of native, drought-resistant landscaping as alternative to water-thirsty lawns. 

Conscientious parents teach their children personal responsibility through the idiom “Waste not, want not” and the wisdom of savings accounts and living within one’s means. So too, we southern Californians can take more responsibility for our water consumption through efforts to capture and make good use of the precious allotment nature blesses us with, free of charge. 

Turning off the water while brushing our teeth, no matter how well intended a gesture, is not near enough.

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Desalination: Unlocking Answers from Yesterday’s Solution

Desalination: Unlocking Answers from Yesterday’s Solution

By Debbie Cook
Guest Columnist

Debbie Cook is the former mayor of Huntington Beach. As a member of the Huntington Beach City Council, she opposed the Poseidon desalination project proposed for the city. She served on the state’s Desalination Task Force and has written extensively on the relationship between water and energy as well as peak oil. Her articles have appeared in a wide array of publications and she is well known for her expertise on energy related issues. This is part 1 of a three-part story.

There is powerful information waiting to be unleashed in water data. If it were set free it would force us to re-think how we use, develop, sell, transfer, and dispose of water. Rather than focusing on the miles per gallon our cars get, we might consider how much water per mile we get from that fuel. Rather than arguing over how much energy is being used to produce water, we would give credit to how much water is required to produce energy. Rather than focusing on whether our food is grown locally, we would consider how much water it took to grow that food in our locality.

For all the lip-service we give to water and its pivotal role, why is there not a U.S. Water Information Administration modeled after the U. S. Energy Information Administration? Established in 1977 as a response to the 1973 oil disruptions, the EIA “collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.” With a budget of $111 million per year, the agency produces data and analysis free of influence from the Executive Branch. The water sector screams for such a resource.

My particular interest in water began in 2003 when I served on the California Desalination Task Force, a group appointed by the State Legislature to look into the opportunities and impediments of desalination. Data is at the heart of reaching conclusions on a technology. Where did the data come from that allowed the committee to write its findings and recommendations? Who verified the veracity of the data? Would it stand up to scrutiny? I have spent eight years chasing such questions.

Information is not easy to come by. There are over 52,000 public and private water utilities in the U.S alone operating largely in anonymity. Public utilities offer varying levels of transparency, private utilities virtually none. The desalination industry consists of over 30,000 companies producing membranes, tanks, chemicals, pipes, monitoring, design, construction, mitigation, engineering, drilling, waste management, and consulting services. Many are competitors and hold data close to the vest. Foraging through public information, industry publicity, scientific papers, and news stories produces information that is contradictory and confusing.

There are 19 desalination projects proposed for Californiaʼs coast. With billions of dollars at stake, the public deserves more clarity on financial and environmental impacts. What are the assumptions that underlie our decisions to move forward? What issues are being left unaddressed? What lessons have we missed that could inform better water planning? Water agencies may be satisfied with the industryʼs propaganda, but my research suggests they should pause and re-examine where we have been and where we are going.

Remembering the past
Desalination proponents throw out numbers that cannot be verified or replicated and those numbers are repeated by the media and government officials as if they were fact.

An article published by the Los Angeles Times on December 4, 2010 is an example.

“Although still not cheap, the cost of desalinated water has been cut by more than half since 1998, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.”

I contacted the reporter to find the source of this statement and received no reply. I searched the USGS website and found an out-of-date overview of desalination with an unsourced sentence that looked like it might be the culprit of the reporter’s “fact.”

“As of 1998, the high cost of desalination has kept it from being used more often, as it can cost over $1,000 – $2,200 per acre-foot (1992 cost basis) to desalinate seawater as compared to about $200 per acre-foot for water from normal supply sources. Desalination technology is improving and costs are falling, though, and Tampa Bay, Florida is currently desalinizing water at a cost of only $650 per acre foot.”

Thinking there might be additional data available from the USGS, I contacted them. They were unable to direct me to any reports or studies to verify the veracity of the claim that Tampa Bay is producing water at $650 an acre-foot. Most likely the figure came from the original presentations made to Tampa Bay Water over a decade ago. Price was probably the motivating factor in Tampa Bayʼs decision to construct a project, but as NOAA stated in a 2003 publication, “Time will not only tell the environmental impacts of Tampa Bay’s desalination plant, but it will also determine if it’s really producing the cheapest desalted seawater in the world.” It would be wonderful if time did tell its secrets. Unfortunately for truth seekers, time may tell but no one is listening.

Last March, according to Tampa Bayʼs General Manager, the cost of production was $1140/acre-foot. Itʼs anyoneʼs guess how he came up with that figure. If you calculate the marginal cost of water based on what the plant has actually produced since 2003, then the cost of water is closer to $1826/acre-foot. Either way, the reporter did the public a disservice by perpetuating the myth that desalinated water can be produced at $650 per acre-foot. I could almost hear the gullible politicians jumping on board.

The reporter could have provided a valuable public service had she written about Tampaʼs twelve years of bankruptcies, technical challenges, and cost overruns. A search of news archives produced an interesting collection of stories, likely with similar fact checking issues, but nevertheless, interesting for the overall picture they paint.

  • 1998 engineering contract awarded to Stone & Webster
  • 2000 Stone and Webster declares bankruptcy
  • 2001 Covanta (partnering with Poseidon Resources) hired to construct and operate for 30 years at $7 million/year
  • 2003 (March) initial output begins producing 3 million gallons but acceptance test fails
  • 2003 (August) plant is shut due to clogged filters
  • 2004 Tampa Bay pays $4.4 million for Covanta to go away
  • 2004 (September) American Water Services hired to fix plant at cost of $29 million. Completion projected for 2006.
  • 2006 (January) Agreement reached between Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) (agency funding $85m of project) and Tampa Bay for payments: 25% when plant is running, 50% when it operates at an annual average rate of 12.5 mg/d for 12 consecutive months, 25% when plant produces 25 mg/d for four consecutive months.
  • 2006 (November) Tampa Bay Executive Director announces additional delays
  • 2007 (August) Tampa Bay announces plant should be running by Halloween
  • 2007 (December) Officials complete 14 day acceptance test. American Water contracts to run plant for 15 years.
  • 2008 $48 million over its original budget of $110 million, the plant is operating
  • 2009 plant producing 16-19 mg/d
  • 2010 (February) plant passes final benchmark, receives final payment
  • 2010 (April) plant put on “standby” due to Tampa Bayʼs budget constraints
  • 2010 (October) Pinellas County (customer of Tampa Bay Water) projects water rate increases of 16% by 2014
  • 2010 (December) SWFMD looks into sanctions against Tampa Bay Water for failure to operate facility in accord with agreement.
  • 2011 (January) Tampa Bay announces plans to reach 9 mg/d production by end of January.

Reviewing the news accounts of the Tampa Bay experience gave me pause. Having served in public office, I am familiar with the face-saving, “circle the wagons” mentality that takes over an agency when problems start to mount. Unfortunately, it means others are not likely to learn any lessons.

No one contemplated a standby plant at Tampa Bay. Now, faced with real production costs higher than the rate guaranteed to customers ($841/acre-foot versus $1140 or more), Tampa Bay will eventually have to raise rates or renegotiate an agreement that locks them a 17 mg/d production rate.

To be continued.

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The Real Bottom Line: City Council betrayed the voters

The Real Bottom Line: City Council betrayed the voters

Commentary
By John Earl

It’s as predictable as death and taxes: politicians say that everyone should obey the law, especially their interpretation of it, but when the law inconveniently conflicts with their own interests they just ignore it in violation of the public trust and their oath of office.

That’s what happened on Dec. 20 when, as reported exclusively in the Voice, the Huntington Beach City Council voted 6-0 to approve changes to the city’s municipal code that would strip the elected city treasurer of the powers and duties vested in that office by the City Charter (the city’s constitution) and hand them over to the Director of Finance, an appointed position under the direct control of the city manager and council, not the voters.

Simply put, the council majority conducted a coup d’état of the City Treasurer’s office, the charter be damned, even though voters said five times at the ballot box that they want an elected treasurer to provide checks and balances in order to better watch over their money.

That’s a good idea, judging from Councilmember Don Hansen’s opinion that it’s just fine to trust investment bankers to properly look after public funds in light of the drastic budget and staffing cuts that accompanied the coup, leaving a treasurer’s office that will be even less able to conduct its oversight duties.

The coup was depicted as an effort to save money—over $100,000 a year by making the treasurer a part-time position and consolidating staff.

Limiting the treasurer to conducting “core” charter duties would create more efficient management, City Manager Fred Wilson told the council, while preserving the independence of the treasurer’s office as required by the City Charter.

Wilson’s conclusions were based on a report by an outside consulting firm, but the changes he recommended and the council approved went beyond what the report called for and clearly conflict with the charter.

That report was not attached to the council agenda for council members and the public to read. Even worse than that act of negligence, when asked if they had even read the report or cross-checked the wording of the code changes with the City Charter, not a single voting council member responded.

Obviously, the City Council didn’t bother to do its homework or think of the possible long range consequences of its actions. When outgoing City Treasurer Shari Freidenrich gave her last address to the council that same night (she was elected Orange County Treasurer), she warned that its illegal actions would endanger the ability of the city to protect the taxpayers’ assets, but her concerns were casually brushed aside by Wilson and City Attorney Jennifer McGrath, as well as the council.

McGrath later conceded that her office is following up on the concerns raised by the Voice and that, “if an amendment is necessary to clarify any ambiguity, then it can be made at the second reading on January 17, 2011.”

Last year, after McGrath issued a legal opinion that said Section 617 of the City Charter—which had been approved by voters—allowed a mandated 15 percent budget set aside for infrastructure to include debt service payments for infrastructure designated bonds, she put her political career on the line.

Councilmember Devin Dwyer, who had hoped to create a city financial crisis that would force renegotiation of city labor contracts, lashed out at McGrath by calling her “another lawyer” using “legalese” to “twist things” in order to thwart the will of the people.

McGrath was attacked by local Republican Party bloggers and threats were made to remove her from office. If you believed the angry rhetoric, it was a war between Good and Evil and McGrath was Satan.

On Dec. 20 it was Dwyer who ignored the will of the voters, but he had plenty of help, even from an unlikely source sitting on the opposite side of his place on the right wing of the political spectrum.

Councilmember Joe Shaw was just as adept at practicing his own form of selective democracy. Despite campaign speeches denouncing the past city council for approving an arguably unlawful senior center in Central Park, Shaw, who was elected to the council for the first time last November, also had no qualms about voting for another arguably unlawful action just as soon as he took office.

Some on the council, no doubt, see our ailing economy as a long awaited opportunity to diminish the functionality of local government and transfer control of the public’s money to the private sector. And some council members are simply happy to claim that they have saved money for the people.

But the real bottom line is that the voters have been betrayed and may end up actually losing money along with their right to vote for a city treasurer who has real power and is accountable to them.

The City Council will have another opportunity at its Jan. 18 meeting (no meeting on Monday because of Martin Luther King Day) to undo its mistakes when the changes to the municipal code come before it for a required second reading and final vote.

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BPA Chemical Lookalike Potentially More Risky

BPA Chemical Lookalike Potentially More Risky

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

It would have been hard to get through 2010 without bumping into some scary information about the plastic ingredient bisphenol A, a.k.a. BPA, like the fact it leaches from polycarbonate baby bottles and sports bottles and metal food can linings into the contents or that it is widespread in the dye on thermal cash register receipts and is absorbed through human skin.

Adding to such anxieties about environmental toxins, Japanese researchers have recently honed in on a chemical very similar to BPA dubbed BPAF, or bisphenol AF, that might be even more dangerous than BPA. The “F” stands for fluorine, and the two substances are identical except for the substitution of six fluorine atoms in BPAF for six hydrogens in BPA (see below).

In part, it was knowledge that certain properties of fluorine might intensify the molecule’s reactivity that drew the researchers’ attention to BPAF, as there are additional chemicals out there that resemble BPA too.

The risks of exposure to BPA stem from the fact that it is an endocrine disruptor that mimics the actions of the hormone estrogen. Over 200 laboratory studies have linked low-dose BPA exposure to a host of health effects including reduced sperm production and infertility, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and derailed development of the brain and prostate gland.

Natural hormones like estrogen act on specific receptors throughout the body in a lock and key fashion to either turn on or off genes that control a host of bodily functions like the development of sex characteristics and ovulation. Endocrine disrupting chemicals play havoc with normal physiology by either mimicking or blocking the action of natural hormones on their receptors.

In humans, there are multiple sub-types of the estrogen receptor, so the impact of environmental chemicals which mimic estrogen will vary depending on which sub-types they can lock onto.

Whereas BPA is known to bind selectively to the “gamma “estrogen receptor in the nucleus of cells where DNA is housed, the research reported by the Japanese researchers in the online April 28, 2010 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives indicated that BPAF delivers a double whammy in that it is many times more potent than BPA at two different receptor sub-types, behaving like estrogen at the “alpha” sub-type but blocking estrogen’s effect at the “beta” sub-type.

This double action of BPAF is worrisome because alpha and beta receptors are widespread in the body of both men and women: alpha receptors predominate in the uterus, liver, kidney and heart, whereas beta receptors are found primarily in the ovaries, prostate, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and bladder. BPAF could upset vital regulatory functions performed by estrogen within any of these organs.

Widespread human contamination with BPA is now well-documented, and sufficient evidence has accumulated in the last decade that low-dose exposure to BPA represents a significant health risk that Canada, the European Union and eight U.S. states (but not California) have banned BPA from various childcare products. BPAF, though, has not been studied for toxicity to humans or animals, nor does anyone know the extent to which humans are already exposed although it is assumed that far more BPA is being produced than BPAF.

However, a 2008 report from the U.S. government’s National Toxicology Program notes that the fluorine in BPAF is likely to make it more persistent in the environment and also points to a study which found BPAF in the fat tissue of women, raising concerns it could be passed along to fetuses.

The same report informs that BPAF, like BPA, is used in polycarbonate plastics, epoxy resins and in components of equipment for processing food and pharmaceuticals. Other sources mention its use in electronic devices and optical fibers. Given that information about the use of BPAF in any specific product would be considered proprietary, the consumer has no way to identify items which might contain it.

As is true for nearly all of the estimated 84,000 chemicals in commerce today, BPA was unleashed on the public without prior health safety testing. Millions of research dollars have since been spent to uncover the threats to public health and wildlife from BPA exposure, and many more dollars will follow before the full story on BPA is known. Early signs suggest BPAF might follow the same course.

Both BPA and BPAF are timely examples of why a drastic overhaul of federal regulation governing chemical safety is sorely needed. The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), which sets national policy concerning regulation of chemicals, is seriously out-of-date and lacks the muscle to hold industry responsible for the health safety of the thousands of new chemicals that go into production each year. By effectively allowing industry to use the public as guinea pigs to test whether new chemicals pose any health risks, the federal government has shirked its fundamental responsibility to safeguard its citizenry.

California and the European Union have already taken legislative actions to embrace the “precautionary principle” which stipulates that chemicals need be proven safe before being let loose onto an unsuspecting public. The U.S. government should follow their lead.

Legislation was in fact introduced by Democrats into both houses of the U.S. Congress in 2010 which would shift the burden onto industry of demonstrating the safety of chemicals they employ and also increase the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to place restrictions on substances deemed risky to the public.

What the conservative shift in Congress which emerged from the 2010 mid-term elections will mean for such efforts to modernize the TSCA remains to be seen.

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Vote by Unvigilant Council Usurps Treasurer’s Office and City Charter

Vote by Unvigilant Council Usurps Treasurer’s Office and City Charter

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

If you have read the Huntington Beach City Charter and think that you have the right to elect your city treasurer, don’t be so sure.

Section 311 of the City Charter—the city’s equivalent to the U.S. Constitution—calls for the treasurer to be elected by the voters at large. But budget cuts and other changes approved Dec. 20 by a 6-0 majority of the Huntington Beach City Council (Connie Boardman was absent) leave little more than a figurehead for a treasurer instead of the vigilant watchdog intended by the charter.

The Director of Finance, who is appointed by the council and answers directly to the City Manager rather than the electorate, will assume the treasurer’s core duties if the legal wording behind the new policy is taken at face value.

The apparent coup d’état was performed by eliminating Section 2.16 of the Municipal Code, which explained the duties and powers of the City Treasurer in detail based on the City Charter, and then attaching several of its provisions to the end of Section 2.15 of the Municipal Code that explains the duties and powers of the Director of Finance.

Outgoing City Treasurer Shari Freidenrich warned that transferring the treasurer’s duties as proposed would be in “direct conflict with the charter and state law.” Eliminating staff would cause the treasurer’s investment decisions to suffer, she said, and went against the will of the voters, who had voted to keep their elected officials elected many times.

Freidenrich was elected to the office of Orange County Treasurer in November. She received kudos earlier at the council meeting (her last) from City Manager Fred Wilson for15 years of service in which she “restored the honor and integrity to the City Treasurer’s position” after the notorious 1994 Orange County bankruptcy.

But Wilson had presented an entirely different analysis than Freidenrich’s in his presentation to the council, saying that the city would save over $100,000 a year by making the treasurer a part-time position and consolidating the City Treasurer’s duties with the Finance Department while preserving the authority and independence of the office. “[Only] the duties and responsibilities not required by the City Charter to be performed by the City Treasurer shall be migrated to the finance director,” Wilson said.

Councilmember Keith Bohr asked City Attorney Jennifer McGrath if the city was in compliance with the law. “Yes, we are,” McGrath answered, “The charter does not speak to whether this position is part time or full time. And by deleting the ordinance you are actually taking it back to the core responsibilities as dictated in the charter.”

City Manager, Fred Wilson. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino SCV

Councilmember Joe Shaw asked if the City Treasurer’s office would retain its ability to act as an independent oversight in order to provide the checks and balances that it is intended to provide as an elected office. In the future, will the City Treasurer be able to do that? 

“Absolutely,” Wilson answered.

Based on McGrath’s two sentences of legal analysis and Wilson’s word, and without cross checking Freidenrich’s assertions with the City Charter, all six council members present were satisfied with the plan. But if they had bothered to read the outside analysis which Wilson cited in his written report as the basis for the final recommendations or to double-checked the charter for themselves before voting, they might have had second thoughts.

The report, “Final Report: Organizational and Staffing Evaluation of Limiting the City Treasurer to Core Charter Responsibilities,” written by Ralph Anderson & Associates, a government consulting firm, does recommend changing the treasurer to a part time position, limiting its range to powers and duties outlined in the charter, and transferring non-core duties over to the Finance Department.

But the Anderson report notes only one non-core function spelled out in chapter 2.16 of the Municipal Code: the collection of money. The report correctly notes that although the charter requires that the treasurer ultimately “receive” all city funds it does not prohibit the initial collection of the money by other agencies. The report recommends that function—and only that function—be transferred to the finance department.

The Anderson report goes further. In order to create a part-time treasurer and still provide the support necessary for that position to fulfill its charter mandate, it recommends that the City Treasurer have “primary support from the Finance Department to accomplish the Offices’ (sic) responsibilities.”

The report, which the six present council members apparently did not read because—although cited—it inexplicably was not attached to Wilson’s written report and probably also because they didn’t ask to read it, did not recommend cutting sections of chapter 2.16 that enumerate the charter mandated duties and powers of the City Treasurer and pasting them into chapter 2.15, which explains the duties and powers of the Department of Finance, but that’s exactly what Wilson did.

The result is a conflict between the city’s municipal code and the city’s charter, and a virtual coup d’état, either by design or by sloppy staff work, and by sloppy council oversight. Nobody on the city council bothered to check, but comparing the wording in the charter to the wording of the amended city law proves the point.

“The City Treasurer shall have the power and shall be required to,” according to the charter, “Receive on behalf of the City all taxes, assessments, license fees and other revenues of the City…”

But now, under the amended city code 2.15(k), the Director of Finance “Receives all City monies including taxes, fees, water, sewer and trash fees…”

Again, the City Charter states that the City Treasurer shall “Have and keep custody of all public funds belonging to or under the control of the City or any such office, department of agency of the City government and deposit or cause to be deposited all funds coming into his hands in such depository as may be designated by resolution of the City Council…”

But now, according to the amended city code 2.15(h), the Director of Finance “Establishes and controls all bank accounts, negotiates services and contracts with bank, makes daily deposits,…” and, regarding investments, in 2.15(l) also “maintains all trusts, bonds, security agreements, and funds for the City including depositing…”

Nowhere in the amended city code does it state that the City Treasurer has any authority over her transferred duties or powers, another indication that the supposed “consolidation” is at best an accidental transfer of power with the potential for future legal headaches or, at worst, a deliberate takeover.

September 15, 2009

At a town hall meeting held by the city’s Charter Review Commission, residents of Huntington Beach were asked to comment on possible changes to the City Charter, including the idea of changing the elected offices of city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer to appointed positions.

It was one of several meetings where the topic would be discussed along with many other charter reform ideas. At the end of the commission’s term various charter reforms were proposed to the council for placement on the ballot, but converting elected positions to appointed positions was not one of them.

Although strong arguments were made on both sides of the debate of elected versus appointed city officials, the question had already been put to the voters many times and their response was always crystal clear: ballot measures to have an appointed city attorney failed seven times; an appointed city clerk failed four times; and, an appointed city treasurer failed five times, most recently in 1996.

Due to the likelihood of yet another rejection by voters, the commission went with a proposal for stricter eligibility requirements for city treasurer instead of creating an appointed position, and that was passed by the voters.

In the past, the voters seemed to have said that they wanted accountability directly to the public in order to provide better checks and balances in local government. Freidenrich, speaking at the town hall meeting, noted the pressures that could be placed on an appointed treasurer to produce interest income, pressures that might lead to risky investments for the taxpayers. “An elected treasurer can be independent and unbiased an select the most important investments for the city,” she said.

Outgoing City Treasurer, Shari Freidenrich. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino SCV

In contrast, speaking at the Dec. 20 council meeting, member Don Hansen suggested a way for assisting the new part-time city treasurer to provide the “safety, security and liquidity” for the city that had been Freidenrich’s trademark by all accounts: investment bankers. They will be at the new city treasurer’s disposal, he said, and “we can’t dismiss their responsibility and commitment to the city in providing their services and experience…”

Whether the residents of Huntington Beach retain their right to elect their city treasurer in reality or in name only, and the extent to which they will have to rely on the recently proven commitment of investment bankers to to protect the public’s best interests, may depend on what happens at the second reading of the amended ordinance at the next city council meeting.

In response to a Voice inquiry, McGrath defended the quick legal opinion she gave to the council, and said the council’s actions were “wholly consistent with the City Charter, the Municipal Code and state law.” As for not answering Freidenrich’s assertions, it was not her responsibility to respond “unless asked by my client.” Only Bohr asked her a question. To that extent, she says, “I responded accordingly and there were no further questions.”

McGrath assured that she would be working closely with the city manager, finance director and treasurer to make sure that law is properly followed. But she also acknowledged that—in response to the concerns raised by the Voice—her office will “follow-up” by taking another look at the language of the ordinance, and “if an amendment is necessary to clarify any ambiguity, then it can be made at second reading on January 17 (sic), 2011.”

Note: The city council meeting will actually take place on the 18th due to Martin Luther King Day on Monday.

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