Archive | April, 2011

A Woman Among Warlords: Malalai Joya brings message of peace to Surf City

A Woman Among Warlords: Malalai Joya brings message of peace to Surf City

By Mary Adams Urashima
Special to the Surf City Voice
 

American author Robert Fulgham said, “Peace is not something you wish for. It’s something you make, something you do, something you are, and something you give away.”   

Over the last two weeks, Golden West College has hosted national and international speakers involved in the work of peace building. Viewed too often as a passive state, peace is not the absence of conflict or inactivity. Peace is complex, involved work. 

And, one should be “all in” because peace building often puts people in harm’s way.   

Prior to the annual peace conference on April 15, Golden West College worked with the Los Angeles-based Afghan Women’s Mission to host Malalai Joya on April 8, one of the few women to be elected to the new parliament of Afghanistan. Prior to her rare appearance in Huntington Beach, she spoke at Harvard University, and afterward in Washington D.C. 

Joya—a survivor of multiple assassination attempts—must move about under cover of the burka she hates while in Afghanistan. A group of Afghan men, armed, provide her constant protection. 

“I never had to wear a burka before,” says the petit Joya, dressed modestly but leaving her long hair uncovered at her Huntington Beach speech.  She appears at ease and obviously relishes being with people who speak freely. 

Joya started speaking out against the inclusion of warlords and extremists in the Afghan government at the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga, or assembly. Only 27 at the time, she shocked the mostly male Afghan gathering with her criticism, chaos broke out, and the chairman promptly tried to oust her from the meeting. The United Nations team put her under their protection. 

Taking her seat in parliament two years later—after a landslide victory in her home province of Farah—Joya again was criticized for comparing members of the unruly assembly to a stable of animals during a televised interview.  Her colleagues promptly banned her from parliament, saying she could return if she publicly apologized.   

In typical Joya fashion, she did apologize – to the animals for comparing them to parliament.  This is a woman who doesn’t back down. 

A Woman Among Warlords
Joya’s visit to the U.S. is both to promote her book, A Woman Among Warlords, and also to speak out against the current strategy in Afghanistan. She has no filter. No one escapes her direct assessment. 
 

Joya speaks about civilian deaths increasing, condemns the use of white phosphorus munitions, criticizes the Karzai government, and refers to the NATO presence in Afghanistan as occupation. She says the fact Afghan women can vote or run for office does not mean the status of women has improved.   

Joya denounces those who “mix Islam with politics and use it against the people.” She deplores the depiction of Afghans “as a backward people, nothing more than terrorists, criminals and henchmen” and thinks the stereotype is dangerous for “both my country and the West.” 

Joya advocates for US withdrawal and tries to educate the American audience about Afghanistan’s centuries-long history of resistance to occupation. She clearly loves the Americans who come to hear her, believing people—not governments—can make a difference. At Golden West, it was apparent her audience loves her back, applauding her entrance and lingering after the program to get one more word with her. 

“I would like them to invade us with hospitals and schools,” says Joya, writing “In solidarity” as she signs books.  “A democracy is never successful unless it comes from the people themselves.” 

“She’s very brave,” says Masoud Farand, an Afghan American documentary filmmaker and activist, who drove from Cerritos to attend Joya’s presentation in Huntington Beach.  He has returned to Afghanistan often to film and assist aid efforts, taking time to meet with both political leaders and the “man on the street.” 

Farand marvels that Joya has not been hurt or killed, but believes her icon status to Afghans and others around the world—including the female Nobel Laureates who defended Joya after she was banned from parliament—offers some protection inside Afghanistan. If anyone touches her, they would be found out. 

“I think the truth is saving her,” Farand comments. Joya’s clear voice is part of what inspires Farand to continue his own work, seeking the humanitarian and political equation that will move Afghanistan into a new era. 

Inspiration
Also seeking inspiration, students in the Peace Studies program at Golden West brought more leaders to the college for the annual Peace Conference the week after Joya’s visit.  Over 200 students, professionals and activists gathered on campus for the day-long forum. 
 

Conference speakers included global ecologists, filmmakers, experts in non violent civil resistance, humanitarians, an anthropologist speaking about biology and culture, a bioenergetics therapist addressing the effect of population-wide post traumatic stress on peace, a leader in alternative education, and a spokesman for the Washington D.C.-based United States Institute for Peace.   

The message was clear: every discipline and every individual has an opportunity to nudge the world closer toward more sustainable and peaceful coexistence.  

A highlight of the conference was an award presentation to San Diego-based “Invisible Children,” a non profit humanitarian organization started by college-age boys to help victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa. The LRA fuels one of Africa’s longest running conflicts in Uganda, and has moved into Sudan and the Congo. 

On their first visit to Uganda in 2003, the southern Californians learned of children kidnapped at night from their homes to be used as child soldiers by the LRA. The LRA is known for having the youngest child soldier, a five-year-old who was armed and forced to fight in Joseph Kony’s pseudo spiritual war. 

Meeting with survivors, who huddled together at night to hide from the LRA, became a defining moment for the visitors. Invisible Children was born.

Like Malalai Joya, the Invisible Children founders have come face to face with the risks of peace building. They lost 25-year-old Nate Henn, one of their American “roadies,” to a suicide bombing that killed 74 people at a World Cup match in Kampala last year. It was his first trip to Uganda.  

Today, Invisible Children is raising funds to build a radio network in central Africa, to track the LRA and warn villages when they are approaching.

“The pursuit of peace has a humbling effect on us all,” said Wes Bryan, President of Golden West, who commented on how the Peace Studies program has affected both his personal views and the curriculum at the college.  Bryan emphasized how the program integrates with other studies on campus, changing how people think and behave.           

Fran Faraz, director of the Peace Studies program hopes the conference will continue to grow. The goal is not only to raise awareness and new ideas, Faraz would like bring the community together.

 “I’d like to invite entrepreneurs who started up companies that are contributing to the cause of peace, economically, socially, environmentally,” comments Faraz.  She would like more hands on experiences for her students, more international figures in the world of peace building, and speakers who will talk about the role of women in peace building. 

This brings us back to Malalai Joya and the continuing pursuit of peace.  “We have two choices,” Joya told an East Coast audience a few days after leaving Huntington Beach, “To sit in silence, or to do struggle. But I’m alive. I didn’t expect to be alive.” 

Mary Urashima is a Huntington Beach resident and, in addition to local charitable efforts, has worked as a volunteer on humanitarian projects for Afghanistan for eight years. Her last article for the Surf City Voice was “A Seed Fallen.”

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Carlsbad Desal Buyout Likely – Min Taxpayer Cost: $640 Million

Carlsbad Desal Buyout Likely – Min Taxpayer Cost: $640 Million

By David Rosenfeld
DC Bureau
Wednesday, 06 April 2011

When it comes to the future of desalinated water in California, San Diego County is facing a reality check. In agreements signed years ago, nine local water agencies brokered sweetheart deals with Poseidon Resources, an investor-owned Connecticut company that has been planning to build and operate a desalination plant in Carlsbad for the past 12 years.

The agreements guaranteed those nine agencies would not pay the true cost of desalinated ocean water – the most costly form of tap water on the planet – until the costs of imported water was even greater. And at that time, they would split the difference for up to 30 years once the plant was up and running.

But those contracts, as they appeared, were too good to be true. They were so good, in fact, for the water agencies that it made the project financially unfeasible, resulting in a near junk bond rating last year as Poseidon prepared to float $530 million in tax-exempt private activity bonds.

So the bond sales were put on hold and the contracts were renegotiated with Poseidon asking the San Diego County Water Authority for an additional subsidy and possibly to buy the nearly $700 million plant if there are future problems. (Poseidon had trouble with their desalination plant in Tampa Bay, Floridaand the Tampa Bay Water Authority had to take over that project.)

Rather than pass-through millions of dollars in subsidies, including up to $350 million from the regional wholesaler Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Water Authority is brokering its own deal with Poseidon to purchase the water directly.

“Those (local) agencies wanted to purchase the desalinated water at a price that was never more than buying water from the Water Authority, and that’s not possible. That was not financially viable,” said Ken Weinberg, director of water resources for the San Diego County Water Authority. “Discussions we’re having now is about paying the actual cost of production and distribution of that water.” 

The maximum price would be set at $1,600 per acre-foot in today’s dollars compared to around $800 for imported water currently. Exactly how much desalinated water the Water Authority will agree to buy from Poseidon – to then resell to local agencies – is still being negotiated in closed-door meetings. Poseidon spokesman Scott Maloni did not return repeated requests for comment.

Based on the average price of desalinated water around the globe at around $3,000 to $4,000, Poseidon may be still underestimating.

The new deal will certainly be more favorable to Poseidon’s equity investors – which change frequently and have included Warburg Pincus, Citi Sustainable and GE Capital.

The deal will undoubtedly be worse, however, for Southern California ratepayers, who increasingly find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to what they will pay for life’s most essential resource.

“The Water Authority will have to raise its rates to cover additional costs of desalination,” said Glenn Pruim, utilities director for Carlsbad Regional Water District.  “It’s definitely in the best interest of the investors. This is a really good deal for Poseidon. It’s a good deal for the Water Authority because they are securing a regional source of water and it could be a good deal for Carlsbad. We just hope they are as good at negotiating deals as they are at making water.” 

Eight of the nine local water agencies that had deals with Poseidon – all but Carlsbad – have agreed to rip up their contracts and let the Water Authority proceed. Carlsbad is holding out for an agreement that guarantees a portion of the tax revenues the city would lose if the Water Authority ever exercised its right to buy the plant. Pruim said the two parties will likely reach an accord soon.

“Poseidon’s business plan doesn’t really make sense except that they get bought out by a public agency,” said Conner Everts, director of Desal Response Group, which would prefer more conservation measures before beginning desalination efforts. “We don’t really think they are there to honestly be a company producing water. We think they are there to buy permits and then get bought out.”

The Water Authority along with Poseidon and its investors are betting that the price of imported water will soon exceed the astronomical price of desalinated water. Various experts interviewed for this series believe it could be anywhere from 10 to 20 years. Yet Poseidon reportedly believes it could take less than five years.

“I don’t know how practical that is,” Pruim said. “Part of it is just reality. Poseidon isn’t manipulating the price of water. It is what it is. They are taking advantage of that in a way. The only thing that could go wrong is if Poseidon can’t produce it and they go bankrupt.”

An analysis by the Public Education Center’s DCBureau.org published last year showed that while private equity and bonds would be used for upfront construction, southern Californians would pay at least $640 million over 30 years for the project, including as much as $374 million in public subsidies. Those subsidies are largely still in place as Poseidon looks to forge a new agreement and finally break ground later this year to start producing water by 2015.

In Poseidon’s latest legal victory, California’s 4th District Court of Appeal rejected a claim by San Diego Coastkeeper to conduct additional environmental studies. 

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Conservationists Fight Back Against Seawater Desalination

Conservationists Fight Back Against Seawater Desalination

By David Rosenfeld
Courtesy of DC Bureau
Thursday, 03 March 2011

California is in the process of building a series of massive ocean desalination plants on a scale not seen before in the United States. While most are at various stages, slowly slogging through bureaucratic red tape, conservationists are pushing back against powerful interests betting California’s looming water crisis occurs sooner rather than later.

Opponents argue the technology is too expensive and damaging to the environment while the state could do a lot more to conserve water at the tap and in the fields where most of California’s expensive imported water ends up. Skeptics also see in desalination a potential boondoggle where the public bears the risk and Wall Street investors reap the benefits.

“We should be doing a lot more in terms of water saving before we go into desalination,” said California Coastal Commission chairwoman Sara Wan.

“Most likely, given the population we have, we’re going to eventually need to do desalination for water,” Wan said. “There are ways to do it that are less damaging and ways that cause significant impact.”

There are now about 20 full-scale proposals for desalination plants – with several smaller facilities already up and running – from San Francisco to San Diego that would turn the salty waters of the Pacific into drinkable tap water. Some plan to draw brackish water through ground wells, while most want to draw millions of gallons of seawater each day through the same in-take pipes that power plants must phase out in 15 years.

Like the power plants, desalination plants have the potential to entrap sea lions, millions of fish and other marine life. The industry says it is reducing harm with newer technologies such as wedge-wire screens, but much depends on location. Wan voted against a large-scale plant in Carlsbad because it would destroy sea life in a nearby estuary, but she supported a plant in Monterey that plans to draw water through near-shore wells. Neither facility is built yet, though both could break ground this year, marking the first large-scale desalination plants in the state.

There are problems too with desalination’s byproduct, the heavy concentrates of salt and the remains of other chemicals that could be dumped into the ocean.

Desalination also has a massive carbon footprint. For the most common type of ocean desalination method called reverse osmosis, which pushes water through membranes, some 40 percent of the operating cost is electricity to power the plant.

The $700 million proposed plant in Carlsbad by investor-owned Poseidon Resources expects to satisfy around 8 percent of San Diego County’s water supply while at the same time consuming as much electricity as 45,000 homes. Greenhouse gas emissions would total about 200 million pounds a year, according to the project’s environmental impact assessment.

Advocates say the technology is becoming more efficient by re-capturing energy and using renewable resources as much as possible. But it is a lot to overcome.

Drawing water
Most of what the state knows about ocean water in-take pipes comes from the impact of 19 coastal power plants. In 2009, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered those plants to phase-out the use of surface water in-take pipes for cooling their red-hot equipment, the sole reason they are located on the coast in the first place. The state’s governing body on water determined those in-take pipes kill 9 million fish, 57 sea lions and other marine life each year.

Lou Correa and Scott Maloni

Sen. Lou Correa joins Poseidon CEO Scott Maloni to support desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Photo Arturo Tolenttino for SCV.

But those orders do not apply to desalination plants, which expect to use many of those same pipes, often at equal capacity, long after power plants are barred from doing so.

“The effects are the same if you’re drawing in seawater for desalination or power plants,” said Tom Luster, an analyst with the California Coastal Commission. “You’re killing essentially 100 percent of marine life, larva and fish eggs.”

Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant and another the company plans to build in Huntington Beach call for using the same surface water in-take pipes used by the local power plants there now.

“That just exacerbates the problem in our mind,” said Joe Geever, a spokesman for Surfrider Foundation, which along with other conservation groups has filed appeals and lawsuits against both facilities. “If you’re going to protect marine life, you have to protect it from all of these industrial in-takes.”

The Carlsbad plant would draw about 300 million gallons of seawater per day from a nearby lagoon and produce roughly 50 million gallons of drinkable tap water.

An environmental impact assessment performed by biologists determined the screens would destroy enough marine life equal to 66 acres of ocean productivity. To compensate for the impacts, Poseidon agreed to restore 66 acres of wetlands in the San Diego bay area and spend more than $60 million on carbon offsets.
 
Ironically, the state order against ocean-cooled power plants will diminish their capacity, industry experts predict, just as desalination is coming on the scene, which requires huge amounts of electricity.

The water sector already accounts for 20 percent of the state’s energy use, and desalination will only make it greater.

Despite the drawbacks, desalination has gained widespread support among California lawmakers and elected water officials who have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Most of the projects would not be possible without tax-exempt bonds and direct subsidies beginning with California’s $3.4 billion Proposition 50 passed in 2002. It provided $50 million to support 48 desalination projects including research and development, pilot projects and feasibility studies from 2004 to 2006. The years following brought increased support as private companies stepped in to build some of the largest public infrastructure projects in the state’s history.

“Desalination is not the solution. But for some agencies it’s part of the solution,” said Paul Shoenberger, general manager of Mesa Consolidated Water in Costa Mesa.  Shoenberger also heads CalDesal, a newly formed pro-desal lobbying group made up of public water agencies and private water companies.

“With water being so critical these days, we shouldn’t be taking any options off the table, and I don’t think we should be pursing only one option,” he said.

According to backers, California faces a looming water crisis that could make the sky-high price of desalinated water today seem like a bargain in as little as 10 years. In fact, dozens of companies, many in the San Diego area, have millions of dollars riding on it.

“They are not just hoping,” said Glenn Pruim, utilities director for Carlsbad Regional Water District, about Poseidon. “They have it locked up in agreements.”

Two-thirds of Southern California tap water and most of the water irrigating California’s rich farmland arrives courtesy of an aqueduct system hundreds of miles long from the Colorado River to the east and the San Joaquin basin in the north. But those reserves are running low, and they threaten endangered species, which could potentially dramatically increase consumer water prices.

California’s population, meanwhile, could reach 60 million by 2050 from around 37 million in 2009, according to the state’s Department of Finance.

“You can ask anyone in the water industry,” said Noelle Collins, spokeswoman for the West Basin Municipal Water District, which supplies water to parts of Los Angeles County. “Everyone has said you can’t conserve your way out of this crisis.”

But analysts at the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, say California farms and households could do a lot more to conserve water.

In parts of Southern California, up to 70 percent of all household water is used outdoors, mostly to water lawns, and an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater drains into the ocean each year.

In California, per capita water use still hovered around 176 gallons per day in 2005, according to the latest estimates by the State Water Resources Control Board.

By contrast, in Australia where ocean desalination plants are up and running in nearly every major city along the coast, consumers reduced their water use to about 40 gallons per day before turning to the costly alternative.

A 2003 report by the Pacific Institute found California could save up to 30 percent of its residential water measured in 2000 mostly by imposing national plumbing code standards established in 1992. Those standards call for low-flow toilets and showerheads and more efficient clothes washers – far less expensive steps than multi-million dollar desalination plants. Other options such as rain barrels, cisterns and native landscapes also help reduce demand. “These are by no means cutting edge technologies,” said Heather Cooley, a Pacific Institute policy analyst.

Another study in 2009 found that California farmers, who receive 70 percent of the state’s overall water supply, could save up to 16 percent – around 5 million acre-feet per year – by adjusting irrigation techniques.

“That’s water you wouldn’t have to withdraw in the first place,” said Cooley, adding that the changes would be greatest in dry months and would also result in healthier plants and less fertilizers and pesticides. “It does suggest that it’s a very effective mechanism for dealing with drought and, in the long run, helping us address climate change.”

In 2009, California passed a state water plan to conserve 20 percent by 2020. The law provides greater incentives for farmers to conserve water, but experts say it won’t be enough.

“There are certainly a lot of barriers to conservation and efficiency. One of them is the low price of water,” Cooley said.

Unlike consumer prices, agricultural water prices are less affected by shortages. Contracts are often set for years at a time and the costs are even more subsidized than residential systems. The new law will require water agencies to measure how much water farmers are using, but it will not enforce any conservation standards.

Sporadic reports in recent years of California farmers letting their fields lay fallow often has more to do with water being cut off due to drought rather than the price of water becoming too high.

Ocean desalination is one way to relieve water pressure on California agriculture, said Shoenberger, who heads CalDesal.

“With an increase in population and increase in water needs in California, desalination is a great potential alternative along with the others for getting local water that’s clean, safe and reliable,” Shoenberger said. “A lot of the inland and agriculture areas would love to see urban California reducing their reliance on the Delta and the inland streams.”

In many cases, conservation has relieved the pressure to build expensive desalination plants where experts realize they are not needed, but supporters say those efforts are running out of steam.

In greater Los Angeles County, water consumption has dropped 15 percent in the past year, according to the West Basin Municipal Water District. The district imports two-thirds of its water today, which it wants to cut in half by 2020. It  also manages a water recycling facility in El Segundo that turns wastewater into 30 million gallons of fresh water daily.

Much of that conservation and reuse came through programs sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which manages the flow of imported water.

On January 26, Metropolitan reduced its conservation budget to just $10 million – about 1 percent of its total budget – for the coming fiscal year beginning in July. Last year, the southern California water agency spent about $20 million and the year before roughly $54 million in conservation rebates.

The agency, meanwhile, has pledged nearly bottomless funding to water districts with working desalination plants. A report by the Public Education Center’s DCBureau.org published last year analyzed how these incentive funds amounted to taxpayer subsidies.

Metropolitan has already committed up to $350 million over 25 years to Carlsbad – given the plant produces as planned – and a virtual blank check for additional plants to come. The incentive amounts to $250 per acre-foot of fresh water produced.

“We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conservation and recycling projects,” said Bob Muir, Metropolitan spokesman. “We conserve and recycle and cleanup groundwater that produces more than a million acre-feet of water per year. That’s more than the water used by cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area.”

West Basin water officials, like many others along the coast, are looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a desalination plant to supplement around 10 percent of the region’s water needs. The district has already spent more than $21 million on two pilot projects over the past 10 years.

At a demonstration plant in Redondo Beach opened in October, visitors can see an underwater video of fish swimming past the in-take pipes and educational displays about making desalination more feasible. Yet, according to West Basin, plans for a full-scale plant are still undecided. Collins said the district wants a plant capable of producing 20 million gallons per day, but a location has not been chosen.

“We want to double our recycling and conservation and add a little bit of ocean desal,” said Collins, adding the district would own the plant while contracting major functions.  

Desalination is not new in California. Any water reuse facility or groundwater remediation likely uses the same technology. And even large-scale plants were considered periodically in decades past.

Several efforts failed to materialize. Others were built but rarely needed. In 1998, Santa Barbara built a desalination plant, which now sits idle because it is too expensive. Recent desalination proposals, too, have been temporary shelved as conservation measures are paying off.

Proposed plants in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo are being questioned. In Long Beach, where local officials have been considering a desalination plant, conservation steps have brought per capita water consumption down to about 100 gallons per day.

“It’s not making as much sense to them now,” said Conner Everts, director of the Desal Response Group opposed to desalination. “There’s no sense of priorities. They just don’t make sense to run. I’ve been working on water issues for 30 years. I’ve watched our per capita use slowly drop. And we know we aren’t capturing and re-using as much as we should.”

The price of desalinated water varies depending largely on the cost of energy. It can average double or even quadruple the current price counties and cities pay for imported water in California. As desalination gets more efficient and the price of water keeps rising, supporters say those price lines will eventually cross. Wherever they cross, the price will be high.

On the Monterey peninsula where a $400 million desalination plant recently won final approval, residents there could be the first to feel the effects financially. The Public Utilities Commission has approved a plan to allow publicly traded California American Water to potentially quadruple water bills on 40,000 ratepayers in order to pay for the proposed plant. There is disagreement, however, over the exact effect on rates with the PUC arguing much less.
 
California American supplies around 40,000 ratepayers with tap water. Most of that water comes from the Carmel River.

“We’re pretty close to the bone on water conservation,” said Andy Bell of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, which issues water permits on the Carmel River. Indeed, the region has some of the lowest water use per capita in the state at around 70 gallons per day.

Beginning in 1995, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered the reduction in the amount of water it withdrew from the Carmel River by 70 percent by 2016 because of endangered steelhead. A ballot measure to build a damn was defeated later that year. Since then, efforts have turned to conservation and desalination.

When the desalination plant is completed, likely in several years, the Marina Coast Water District will own the plant while Cal-Am will purchase the water and pass the costs onto ratepayers. The Public Utilities Commission says consumers could pay up to 63 percent more for water, but a division within the PUC charged with representing ratepayers estimates the agreement could lock consumers into paying four times their current amount. The plant should produce around 10 million gallons of drinkable water per day when it is up and running.

Diana Brooks, with the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, said the division opposed the water purchase agreement approved by the PUC last year because it lacked meaningful cost controls.

“In this case you have a private water company contracting with two public agencies to deliver water and they have no ability to absorb any risk,” Brooks said. “If there are any risks or the project doesn’t work right, all the risk passes right back through to the customers.”

The PUC also granted Cal-Am the ability to pass through in its rates the costs of attorney fees up to $4.3 million, including the costs of fighting appeals by the Division of Ratepayer Advocates.

“So we’re representing the customers but the customers had to pay for the company’s attorney costs,” Brooks said.

Catherine Bowie with Cal-Am disagreed with Brooks’ assessment. “There is multiple cost controls in the water purchase agreement,” she said. “The facility is being developed by public agencies, so there will be every effort to go after the lowest costs. We have a number of provisions that deal with the management of the project. There is an independent analysis of financing and value engineering through design and construction. I absolutely think there are guarantees of cost control.”

Bowie said that after six years (an application with the PUC was originally filed in 2004) the area was ready to finalize its plans. “We have been in need of a new water supply here since the 1970s, and we are finally developing a solution to this problem,” Bowie said. 

Photo top right: Arturo Tolenttino, Surf City Voice

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Less Water Means More Money for Desalination Industry

Less Water Means More Money for Desalination Industry

By David Rosenfeld
DC Bureau
Tuesday, 08 March 2011 

For the scores of businesses in Southern California already supplying desalination equipment around the globe, California’s impending water crisis spells opportunity.

An estimated 3,000 people work for companies in the San Diego area supplying equipment or logistical support for desalination plants, earning the industry upwards of $350 million in annual revenues.

A key element of their business also supplies facilities that re-use and recycle water using similar technology including the membranes that make up the heart of any ocean desalination plant.

“It’s a big industry,” said Tom Pankratz, who writes about desalination for Global Water Report and consults for various water agencies. “A lot of companies that make stuff for desalination plants also make stuff for power plants and automobile plants. There are a lot of major multi-national corporations that have desalination subsidiaries.”

Some of the biggest companies include General Electric, Dow Chemical, Acciona Aqua, Toray Membrane, Veolia Water Solutions and Hydronautics.

About 20 ocean desalination plants up and down the cost of California – most in the early planning stages – have stirred debate over whether adopting such an expensive technology with large environmental impacts is worth it.

Most of the world’s 2,000 desalination plants are currently located in the Middle East where water is in short supply but energy is cheap. In California, an estimated 40 percent of the cost of desalination is energy to run the plant.

Lobbying by companies that stand to gain financially from desalination has helped earn widespread support from California lawmakers, including strong backing from former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2007, Schwarzenegger aligned with a group of nearly two-dozen lawmakers – local and statewide – supporting a proposed plant in Carlsbad by investor-owned Poseidon Resources. In a signed letter they urged the California Coastal Commission to approve the Poseidon project “on its first opportunity.”

In November of that year, the commission voted 9-to-3 in favor of the project even though Commission staff said Poseidon failed to provide complete information. 

Since 2000, Poseidon has spent nearly $1 million lobbying the California legislature and other elected officials that oversee the state’s intricate water supply. All told, Poseidon has reportedly spent around $60 million on engineering and attorney fees on its Carlsbad plant before a single spade of dirt has been overturned.

“Poseidon is very well connected,” said Glenn Pruim, Carlsbad public works director. “That’s one thing they’ve done very well is to make contacts in the industry whether it be politically or legally. They’ve been very successful in fighting off lawsuits against their project.”

In 2008, executive director of the California Energy Commission, Melissa Jones, abruptly changed positions on the Carlsbad project. First she wrote to the Coastal Commission that the project contained “several fundamental errors.” Eleven days later, Jones wrote to retract her comments. She said she had met with Poseidon representatives and concluded “the project and the plan for mitigation are laudable.”

Proposed desalination plants must also win approval from city and county governments as well as the Public Utilities Commission in the case of investor-owned utilities. First and foremost, however, desalination must win the nod from water agency officials, which, in large part, they have succeeded in doing.

A group of California water companies and public agencies formed the non-profit CalDesal last year to educate and lobby for desalination. So far the group has collected around $100,000 in membership dues, said Paul Shoenberger, general manager of Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa. The group recently hired as executive director Ron Davis, former legislative director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

“Our main purpose is to promote environmentally friendly desalination in California,” Shoenberger said.

The desalination message also reaches water officials through sponsored conferences, such as the annual ACWA meeting. Public records indicate today’s West Basin board members attend annual conferences of the New Water Supply Coalition, which lobbies nationally for desalination, and the American Membrane Technology Association, representing companies integral to desalination plants.

The International Desalination Association plans to hold conferences this year in Dubai, Algiers, China and Antigua. Global Water Intelligence also convenes seminars around the world. At last year’s conference in Paris, event organizers tried to pay the airfare for a San Diego County Water Authority official to accept an award for public utility of the year.

“The legal departments said they couldn’t do it and don’t have a budget to pay themselves,” said Pankratz, who helped organize the conference.

But officials frequently travel overseas to see existing plants. Last year, Pankratz helped West Basin water officials travel to Australia – paid by the district – to see an ocean desalination plant in action.

“If you want to see a desalination plant that’s operating, you have to travel,” Pankratz said. “Whenever anyone is doing a new plant, the most senior engineers usually take a trip to visit some operating plant to see how it’s working.”

City councilmen sometimes go on trips, too, he said. “Most of the time the city pays for it.”

Adding to the obscure nature of California’s intricate network of water rights, water agency board meetings often operate with little oversight, said Conner Everts, director of the Desal Response Group. In 2004, two members of the West Basin Municipal Water District went to prison for accepting bribes.

Everts said the current board and the larger Metropolitan Water District of Southern California could do more to increase transparency. Projects are often approved, he said, “with little or no public scrutiny with subcommittee policy meetings and board meetings in the middle of the working day.”

The results of lobbying at the Public Utilities Commission and the California Coastal Commission are obvious. In August 2009, the Utilities Commission overruled an administrative law judge in a dispute over what California American Water could charge ratepayers for desalinated water.

A day before the ruling, company lawyers met with commission staff.

“It was a compromise,” said Diana Brooks with the Division of Ratepayer Advocates. “But on the last day before they voted on it, the commissioner changed his version of it, and adopted the settlement the way it was written.”

The settlement gave California American Water, a publicly traded company, authority to potentially quadruple water prices for desalinated water produced by a publicly owned plant.

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Soyfood Industry’s Not-So-Healthy Secret

Soyfood Industry’s Not-So-Healthy Secret

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

Soy-based foodstuffs like veggie burgers and nutrition bars are a source of protein and generally considered “health foods” often eaten out of a belief they are good for you.

Soyfoods also have a reputation for being produced in a more environmentally friendly or sustainable fashion than animal sources of protein.

However, whether foods containing highly processed forms of soy protein are really good for people or the environment is brought into question by a November 2010 report from the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based non-profit, which claims that non-organic soy protein is commonly extracted from the soybeans by literally bathing the beans in n-hexane, a chemical by-product of petroleum refining.

Even popular brands of nutrition bars, veggie burgers and other meat alternatives marketed as “natural” are often guilty of this practice unless they are specifically USDA Organic.

Soybeans were originally introduced to U.S. farmers in the 1930s from Southeast Asia where soybeans have traditionally been treated with hot water to yield soy milk and tofu or else fermented to obtain products like soy sauce, miso and tempeh. Soybeans were initially grown in the United States to obtain soy cooking oil which was extracted mechanically (through pressure), and the protein rich residue was and is still used as animal feed.

By the 1950s, soy oil was the most popular vegetable oil in the United States, though rapeseed oil (canola) later surpassed it in popularity.

However, chemical extraction was applied to soybean processing in the latter half of the 20th century to derive the various protein derivatives now added to many human foods: soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and textured soy protein. The first step in obtaining any of these is the chemical bath which extracts the soy oil, leaving behind “defatted” soy flour which undergoes further processing into the different forms of soy protein incorporated into foods (see diagram).

Hexane remains today the chemical of choice for oil extraction for not just soy but other vegetable oils too, like corn and safflower. However, any oils meeting USDA Organic standards, which prohibit processing with synthetic chemicals, are always extracted mechanically with pressure via an expeller, screw or ram press. The more traditional oils, like olive and coconut, are also often obtained through mechanical extraction, whether organic or not.

According to Cornucopia’s food policy analyst Charlotte Vallaeys, the standard hexane bath is literally 50-60 percent n-hexane, and the rest is composed of other related petrochemicals – cyclohexane, methylcyclohexane and methypentanes.

Hexane is a readily available component of gasoline used as an industrial solvent for cleaning and degreasing all sorts of items. As to why it continues to be applied to extracting soy protein when mechanically extracted organic soy protein has been available for many years, the answer is obvious: Hexane extraction is cheaper and the yield is greater.

Soy processingThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies hexane as a neurotoxin affecting the nervous system of humans and lab animals, based on effects of chronic inhalation. Chronic workplace exposure increases risk for polyneuropathy, a neurological disorder characterized by muscle weakness, nerve damage and visual impairment. The agency cites no studies that have yet looked into the effect of oral exposure, and studies are also lacking to determine hexane’s carcinogenic potential except for one which linked brain tumors to workers exposed to hexane and other chemicals at a petrochemical plant.

Hexane is also regarded as a hazardous air pollutant because it contributes to ground-level ozone, a component of smog. According to Cornucopia, 19 million pounds were released into the air in 2009 from the processing of soybeans and other grains. Furthermore, hexane is highly explosive and has injured or killed both plant workers and tanker truck drivers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not set any restriction on the maximum level of hexane allowed in soyfoods, nor are manufacturers required to measure residues in foods, so how much hexane humans could be exposed to through consumption of processed soyfoods is unknown. The European Union, however, adopted a directive in 2009 targeting residues of solvents used in food processing and set a hexane limit of 10 ppm (parts per million) for foods containing defatted soy protein products.

In 2009, Cornucopia sent a sample each of soy meal and soy grits to an independent testing lab which detected hexane residues of 22 ppm and 14 ppm, respectively. Cornucopia has since petitioned the FDA to measure both soy foodstuffs and human tissues for hexane contamination, with particular focus on products made for infants and children because of the greater vulnerability of youngsters to environmental toxins. The FDA has yet to respond.

According to Cornucopia, the more mainstream brands of infant soy formula (Enfamil, Similac and Nestle) rely on hexane-extracted soy protein, and the manufacturers offer no organic alternatives. At least three smaller companies do: Vermont Organics made by PBM Nutritionals, Earth’s Best from The Hain Celestial Group, and Baby’s Only from Nature’s One.

Downloadable shopper’s guides are offered by Cornucopia which list popular brands of nutrition bars, veggie burgers and meat alternatives according to whether or not their soy ingredients are processed with hexane (www.cornucopia.org/2010/11/hexane-soy/ ).

Twenty of the 44 nutrition bars inventoried, including Cliff Bars, Odwalla, and Genisoy, are processed with hexane, and the same is true for 17 out of 31 meat alternatives, including popular products made by Boca, Morningstar Farms, Gardenburger, and Yves Veggie Cuisine.

A word of warning: It can be tricky to get the straight scoop from manufacturers of non-organic soyfoods on how the protein was extracted because most will have purchased it from one of the handful of corporate giants that actually do the extractions (e.g. Archer Daniels Midland or Solae). Soyfood makers can disingenuously skirt the issue by stating that their company does not use hexane.

Cornucopia emphasizes the importance of scanning the ingredient list for non-organic soy protein ingredients or, better yet, looking for the USDA Organic seal. A product labeled “made with organic ingredients” can still contain up to 30 percent non-organic ingredients, and a “natural” label conveys nothing about how soybeans were processed.

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How Downtown Surf City Evolved from its ‘Beaver Days’ Into a ‘Village’

How Downtown Surf City Evolved from its ‘Beaver Days’ Into a ‘Village’

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Note: This is the first of a series of occasional articles about the history of development and redevelopment in Huntington Beach over the past 30 years. 

During the March 7 HB City Council meeting, member Keith Bohr praised the success of downtown redevelopment.

There are “challenges with alcohol” there, he said, referring to the city’s infamously high DUI rate—1st place in its size range in the state and 7th out of all California cities, but those challenges show that we are “victims of our success.”

People who tell him that they prefer downtown the way it used to be must have a “selective memory,” he said, or are remembering the “Beaver days,” referring to the idyllic community that existed downtown in the 50s and 60s but perished in subsequent economic decline.

“I’ve been around since 87,” Bohr reminisced, going back to his days as a city planner. “There were a lot of boarded up ground-floor retail stores [downtown]. There was a former deputy sheriff arrested for running a teenage prostitution ring out of the upstairs of the 200 block of Main Street, where the parking structure is now. There were devil worshippers living there in the single-room occupancies. I think Huntington Beach has improved a lot every year.”

True, downtown Huntington Beach was badly in need of repair, both structurally and socially, 24 years ago—although Bohr’s story about devil worshippers is more urban legend than fact (more on that later).

The city’s population had grown from around 11,000 in 1960 to around 176,000 in 1983—when downtown redevelopment officially kicked off. In an interview with this reporter published in the Nov. 13, 1987 issue of the Huntington Beach News, the new City Administrator, Paul Cook, commented on the aftermath of the population explosion of the early 60s.

“Basically, the city grew and there just isn’t enough density to keep it [downtown] going on its own,” he explained.

Before that change, the city’s small population was centered on Main Street, so that’s where people shopped. “So they [downtown businesses] had a captive audience. As the city grew and the shopping center at Five Points went up, as well as other shopping centers, the competition grew too great for Main Street,” Cook explained.

Progress in other areas of the city brought economic failure and boarded up buildings to the downtown.

Transients frequented the area and lived in some of those buildings, including the old Surf Theater that closed its doors in 1986. There was a lot full of junk cars and drug deals were easy to come by downtown.

Fifty-one buildings that hadn’t been upgraded for earthquake safety—some were built in the 1920s and 30s—speckled the area.

The downtown’s bad reputation only made it harder for the remaining businesses to survive. Landowners, business owners, city residents and city planners all agreed that something had to be done, but agreeing on a plan was another thing.

Tourist Destination
Under the direction of City Administrator Charles Thompson and the city council (also acting as the redevelopment agency), the city’s first solution was to turn downtown into a tourist destination. A “first-rate, high-quality hotel” with 300 rooms, a 40,000 square-foot conference room and a 20,000 square-foot public plaza located on the south corner of PCH and Main(on 10 lots sold to the developer for $1.00 apiece) was part of the plan.

But that plan had its obstacles. A news story in the Register bragged that “Several hotel chains are now actively interested in the project.” In fact, not a single hotel company was interested. So city planners downsized the project into a 150-180 room hotel that also never appeared at that location.

Pierside Village, a beachside shopping center, was another key to the city’s downtown redevelopment plan. It was to be located on the beach south of the pier, with a 4 foot high wooden deck extending out onto the sand. A tri-level underground parking structure with a major restaurant on top was to be located on the State owned beach north of the pier.

City planners were so excited about Pierside Village that they neglected to tell the council about changes they had made to the plan—including giving the State Parks and Recreation Department the false impression that the council had approved the changes.

No matter, because when the council found out that they had been blindsided by planners they still instructed them to proceed apace, even though the proposed changes had not been passed by the Planning Commission as required by law.

Opposition
When Bohr first started working for the planning department in 1987, the city was in the middle of a pitched battle with downtown property owners and organized residents who were opposed to redevelopment plans that they considered to be grandiose, poorly planned, unfair and detrimental to the quality of life.

Eager to get past stubborn downtown land owners, the city council also ignored a previous resolution requiring that two-thirds of the landowners in a project area agree voluntarily to sell their property to the Redevelopment Agency before the other third of the owners could be forced to do so through eminent domain.

Some downtown property owners felt that they were being railroaded by the city. They would form a PAC in April, 1988 to hold out for better prices on the forced sale of their land.

But the battles over redevelopment weren’t confined to the downtown.

In July, 1987—about the same time the Pierside Village plan came forth—a raucous crowd of over 300 residents and property owners came to city hall and opposed a proposal to declare 508 acres of land along five miles of Beach Boulevard between Edinger and Atlanta Avenues as blighted so it could be declared a redevelopment area.

The meeting before the city council/redevelopment agency became so intense that the stenographer hired to record the event broke down, crying out “Wait a minute, I can’t take it anymore,” and walked off the job.

After seven hours of hearings, at 2:55 a.m., the Beach Blvd. redevelopment project was defeated 5 – 2.

Back to Beaver
Cook took a much different approach to redevelopment than his predecessor, eschewing the big hotels concept for a “village” atmosphere that would redefine downtown from that time forward. Cook wanted to return to something like Bohr’s so-called Beaver days.

“I don’t see tourism down there as being viable, especially 12 months a year,” Cook told this reporter. “I remember when I came here in 62, Main Street was a pretty private little street with men’s clothing stores and barber shops and village stores and everything was fine.”

Cook got kudos from supporters and critics of redevelopment alike, but public concerns about Pierside, traffic, parking and the city’s heavy-handed use of eminent domain remained strong.

In a drastic attempt to change public opinion and push downtown redevelopment through, the city released a seven-minute video depicting the downtown as having the highest crime rate of any area in the city. It was a haven for drug use, Satanic and Nazi gangs, and “slumlords” who violated health, safety and seismic codes. Pictures of similar buildings that were destroyed in the recent Whittier earthquake were added to make the case for downtown redevelopment.

Cook said he was surprised by the unsanitary living conditions in the downtown buildings or “flop houses” that were depicted in the video. But not all of the code violations were a surprise to city officials.

As had been revealed previously by this reporter in the HB News, city officials, including the council, had deliberately held back on seismic enforcement on buildings whose owners cooperated with its redevelopment plans. Suddenly, however, the city was determined to convert from discriminatory enforcement to all-out enforcement.

Satan’s Home
To back the city’s claims that downtown was occupied by a Satanic cult, the video showed clips of Satanic literature found in a vacant and recently fire-damaged home, as well as wall graffiti depicting pentagrams, the pope, and the Grim Reaper.

It turned out that the “Satanic” house belonged to Frank Mola, who developed the Charter Center on Warner and Beach and who had been cited numerous times in the past for code violations.

City officials claimed that redevelopment would create a downtown environment that would discourage visitation by all types of gangs and diminish drug use and crime there.

But the city’s gang specialist offered no evidence that the “Satanic” findings were evidence of cult infestation rather than individual activity and admitted that actual gang related incidents in the downtown area had been few in the past five years.

Meanwhile, concern about development induced traffic problems had swept across much of Orange County. Huntington Beach voters gathered signatures and placed the Citizens Sensible Growth and Traffic Initiative (CSGT) on the Nov. 1988 ballot. Its purpose was to prohibit any future development that would increase traffic or adversely affect the quality of life in the development area.

The CSGT was a clone of a county ballot measure that was placed on the June ballot. Similar measures were placed on the ballot in Seal Beach, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Costa Mesa. Eventually each of these campaigns would fail at the polls, but before a business backed advertising campaign took hold they were favored by the vast majority of voters.

With public pressure and self-doubt mounting, the city hired a development consultant to reevaluate the downtown. The report concluded that the city’s original plans weren’t marketable, challenged the viability of its parking and traffic circulation plans and recommended a 180 degree turn away from attracting the tourist trade toward an emphasis on residential and complimentary commercial (mixed-use) development.

In a letter to the city council, Cook emphasized the report’s main conclusions:

  • Long lasting commercial revitalization of Main Street was dependent upon creating a significant resident neighborhood, an approach that had proven successful in cities across the country.
  • Return Main Street to a two-way artery.
  • “A more sizeable and consistent household population base is required to turn the area into a legitimate residential neighborhood where people actually live and work rather than just a place to ‘hang out and party.’”
  • Retail on Main Street should “enhance the marketability and competitiveness of the larger housing component,” and should be oriented toward local residents’ needs rather than seasonal visitors.
  • An 8 – 10,000 square foot “ranch style” market should be located on Walnut and Main.
  • There should be 25,000 square feet of retail on Walnut and 6th streets.
  • A four screen movie theater for PCH and Main.
  • Perq’s bar should have a second level restaurant that would also serve as a “quality nightclub or comedy club.”
  • A 15-20 room bed and breakfast facility would be a good fit for the village concept, but Cook noted that “a hotel is not one their suggested uses nor is it one of mine.”

In April, 1988, the city council unanimously approved conceptual plans for creating a “village atmosphere” downtown instead of the hotel and tourist oriented destination it had previously planned for. Most conspicuous among the changes was the elimination of the 300-room hotel. The Pierside Village, which the city agreed would not help revitalized the portion of downtown on the inland side of PCH, remained in the city’s plans.

 

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