Tag Archive | "CalDesal"

Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab


By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

(Editor’s note: This story has been republished below to correct a typo that could not be removed from the http link)

Over the past several months I have been trying to get to the truth behind Mesa Water District’s obsession with Poseidon Inc.’s proposal to build an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Since 2009, the water agency has gone from a typical local water provider to become the State’s biggest booster of ocean desalination, spending tens of thousands of dollars in cash, resources, and staff time for a project that makes zero business sense.

So I spent the last week perusing Mesa’s board agendas.  I now have a better understanding of the cause of the agency’s new found love affair.

First and foremost, you need look no further than Mesa’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger.

Prior to his employment at Mesa, Shoenberger worked for Los Angeles County’s biggest desalination cheerleader, West Basin Water District. In 2009, he concurrently served on Mesa’s board of directors before applying and “winning” his influential position as Mesa’s general manager.

But Shoenberger has some explaining to do about that victory.

The position was advertised in March of 2009 with a filing deadline of May 8, 2009. But Shoenberger didn’t resign his seat until July 13, 2009.

He may have thought he was escaping the perils of Government Code Section 1090 by leaving Mesa’s board meetings prior to any closed session discussions about the position, but 1090 precludes the entire board from negotiating a contract in which one of its members has a financial interest.  Fortunately for Shoenberger, he needn’t worry too much—conflicts of interest are rarely prosecuted in Orange County.

During Mesa’s change of guard, the agency forgot his fiduciary duty to the public and signed a letter of intent with Poseidon to buy water its ratepayers would never need (Mesa proudly proclaims its self-sustaining independence from imported water sources), heralding a bond of cooperation to pursue approval of a huge but unneeded desalination plant that will add $5 billion in local water bills, an average of $8,500 per Orange County ratepayer, over the next 30 years.

Under the agenda item vaguely listed as “other,” and without a vote, the Mesa board gave Shoenberger the go ahead to start a secretive organization that would lobby on behalf of the desalination industry and developers. The board turned a blind eye and Shoenberger spent staff time and money as he saw fit to create CalDesal. Mesa board member Shawn Dewane became its first President.

CalDesal began with lofty goals, but its membership has remained static at about 70 in number — each paying $5,000 in annual dues — for two of its three years. That membership is divided about evenly between officials from public agencies, such as Mesa Water, and a mixture of corporate CEOs and consultants looking to make a killing in the client-rich environment that CalDesal was designed to provide for them.

CalDesal’s modus operandi is to lobby for desalination projects and regulatory “streamlining” — code word for rolling back fundamental environmental protection and permitting rules that stand in the way of desalination and unbridled development in general.

As CalDesal President and Mesa director, Dewane is reimbursed for travel expenses to the Sacramento based “non-profit” and receives a stipend for attending its meetings–courtesy of Mesa’s ratepayers.

Shoenberger argues that the agency’s support of CalDesal is no different than its support of many other non-profits…like the Orange County Business Council, another non-profit the agency joined shortly after Shoenberger became GM. Membership dues, staff time, stipend pay…it all adds up to an agency that has money and time to waste.

From my examination of public records, Shoenberger spends too much of the ratepayers’ time and dime promoting desalination and not enough time looking out for the interests of the agency that pays him over $230,000 per year.

Much of Shoenberger’s time is spent serving on the boards of outside organizations, as chair of the ACWA (Association of California Water Agencies) desalination sub-committee, as a member of the New Water Supply Coalition (another desalination lobby group), and as a board member of the Affordable Desalination Collaboration (a laughable oxymoron as desalinated water is many times more expensive than any other water source).  District resources support all of his outside desalination activities including his many speaking engagements and conferences within and outside the state.

Shoenberger and his board have also seen fit to reward consultants and contractors of Poseidon with Mesa contracts.  At a recent committee meeting, board president Jim Fisler and director Dewane recommended that Mesa hire Richard Brady and Associates, the same outfit that completed modeling work for Poseidon.

Mesa also uses Poseidon pollster Adam Probolsky who conducted a “push” poll to demonstrate public support of ocean desalination (of course, the ratepayers who were polled were not told the cost of the proposed water or project).  Probolsky works closely with Roger Faubel, a PR consultant who has worked for Poseidon for the past decade and who himself is on the Board of Directors of Santa Margarita Water District.  Faubel also does work for Mesa.  And last summer Mesa hired Phil Lauri who was the manager of West Basin’s Ocean Desalination program.

In earlier times, the media or enforcement agencies might have taken note of the many flagrant violations of public trust at Mesa, but not today.

Today, Mesa operates with impunity, even when it meets in anonymity–which it often does.

Since Paul Shoenberger became Mesa Water’s general manager, its board members have conducted at least 16 illegal closed-door sessions to discuss Poseidon.

Shawn Dewane refuses to comply with lawful public records act requests regarding CalDesal.

Adding insult to injury, the inquiring public is treated to rude remarks from the board, both in their presence and when they are unable to hear or respond.

The truth about Mesa’s obsession with the Poseidon project is obfuscated by its lack of transparency.

But what can we do about it?

Since the public can no longer look to the mainstream media, or to the District Attorney, or to the State Attorney General, it is up to each of us to participate in the democratic process, to attend Mesa Water meetings, to question, to expose wrong doing, and to propose constructive solutions.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

Let the truth about Mesa Water be told.

Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach and an advocate for greater transparency in public water management.

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Get Desal Permits Quickly by Coordinating Early & Designing a Good Project, State Panelists Say


By John Earl
Surf City Voice

How to get more ocean desalination plants built in California despite pesky environmental regulations was the topic of a workshop on Oct. 30 at the 1st Annual Desalination Conference held by CalDesal at the Hyatt hotel in Irvine.

CalDesal is a non-profit lobbying organization started by Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa after years of collaboration with various other southern California public water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Municipal Water District of Orange County.

CalDesal promotes desalination on behalf of its 80 or so member organizations, including public water agencies and private water corporations, as well as the private consultants who piggy back on that tightly knit partnership – the foundation of water management.

The raison d’être for CalDesal is the desal industry’s powerful foes, the environmentalists, who, it is said (but never documented), greatly outspend and out lobby the water industry. Due to that imbalance, environmentalists have gone too far with regulations, obstructing what could be an eternal flow of water from the limitless ocean that is needed to feed our (or the water industry’s) insatiable appetite for growth.

In an “Action Alert” issued last spring, CalDesal warned that “There can be in excess of 30 local, state, and federal permits and related approvals and comments involved in reviewing and issuing permits for seawater desalination projects. That often can lead to an inefficient permitting pathway and redundant requirements” putting at risk “critical water supplies for communities.”

CalDesal intended the alert to rally support for “streamlining” legislation, Assembly bill 2595, which proponents hope would set up a so-called one-stop shop to replace the five or six stages of permitting that exists now.

Streamlining advocates insist that their intent is to increase efficiency, not to “fast track” the projects in order to by-pass environmental regulations. But the bill’s opponents say that by diluting the permitting process the bill would undermine fundamental environmental protections.

“There’s no need to streamline ocean desalination regulations,” says Conner Everts, director of the Southern California Watershed. “Projects that comply with existing laws have moved forward. Those that haven’t have been challenged.”

Water agencies want to be exempt from environmental regulations, Everts says. “But this [ocean desalination] is a new technology with huge impacts that is new to California and the United States and [it] deserves to be properly reviewed.”

The bill died in committee, but the fight to streamline lives on through CalDesal, whose members probably ended up hearing a different truth than expected at the generally upbeat but tightly controlled two-day event.

Titled “Desalination Permitting – the intersection of Science & Policy,” the workshop brought together representatives from the state agencies that handle permitting for desalination projects, including the California Natural Resources Agency, California State Water Board, California Coastal Commission, California State Lands Commission and California Department of Fish and Game, to explain permitting basics to CalDesal’s members.

The overriding message was clear: follow the proper procedures from the start; if your project is worthy, it will be approved in a matter of months. But if you don’t follow the proper procedures, expect delays.

Building a desalination plant is “an extremely daunting process,” explained Catherine Kuhlman of the Natural Resources Agency, which monitors the state’s natural, cultural and historical resources, including marine protection areas. “We also know that desal is a necessary component of our water supply in the future.”

Kuhlman said that there are three key permits to get, from the Lands Commission, Coastal Commission and the State Water Board. Those agencies work together to avoid permitting conflicts, she said, and they are committed to ensuring that desalination is part of the state’s “water portfolio.”

Coordinating early with the permitting agencies is “hugely important,” she said, but “pitting the agencies against each other isn’t going to be an effective strategy. It will result in a delay.”

Tom Luster of the Coastal Commission explained the role of state agencies in upholding the Public Trust Doctrine, which is embedded in centuries of Western law and the California Constitution.

The Public Trust Doctrine protects the public’s right to water resources for the common good rather than strictly for private profit and underlies what each state permitting agency does in its own way, he explained, so desalination projects must conform to its principles.

Tom Luster

Tom Luster speaks to CalDesal members about faster permitting. Photo: Surf City Voice

To help streamline the permitting process for ocean desalination projects, Luster suggested submitting applications to the State Lands Commission early on because that agency serves as the lead for determining compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, which sets the protocol used by state and local agencies for analyzing and disclosing environmental impacts of local projects and it thoroughly analyzes Public Trust Doctrine issues as part of that process.

Adhering to the California Coastal Act, which provides the structure by which the Coastal Commission protects coastal resources, is also paramount, Luster said. “The better the proposed project incorporates all the Costal Act policies and the other state requirements, the more likely it’s going to have a smoother ride through the permit process.”

The main concern, Luster said, is to determine the least environmentally damaging way of creating the water supply after considering all the alternatives, including different approaches to desalination or sources other than desalination.

“Part of the consideration should be, are there water efficiency or conversation measures that can be put into place? Are there additional recycling opportunities that you would put into place before going to the desal? If those options have provided the [water] supply with less environmental damage those would be evaluated as part of our assessment of the project,” Luster said.

Luster listed specific issues that the Coastal Commission will look at during its review of an ocean desalination project, including the pros and cons of co-locating with a power plant for ocean intake, as Poseidon Resources Inc. plans to do with the AES power plant in southeast Huntington Beach in order to suck in 100 million gallons or more of seawater each day and produce 50 million gallons of potable water.

That intake process, referred to as once through cooling (OTC) because seawater is passed through pipes to cool the power plant, decreases capital costs but kills virtually all marine life (larvae) that come through the intake process.

The State Water Board has virtually eliminated the use of OTC for power plants by 2020 but will decide how to apply the new marine protection standards to ocean desalination plants in next two years.

Although Poseidon claims that the amount of ocean marine life that would be killed by the Huntington Beach plant is miniscule, the actual harm done goes beyond any single ocean desalination plant, Luster pointed out.

There are 12 ocean desalination plants envisioned or planned along the coast between Tijuana and Santa Barbara that would draw in marine life from overlapping areas, including some designated to protect marine life, which would have a significant cumulative effect.

“Co-location should not just be considered a default choice of facility,” Luster said, a factor that he also said would be considered in the Commission’s project analysis.

Other desalination permitting issues mentioned by Luster:

  • How much water is needed and can it come from multiple sources?
  • Will the water go to one defined location where water conservation plays a key role or to an area without an effective conservation program?
  • Does the project fit with the Local Coastal Plan and anticipate population growth?
  • Is the site located in a protected or sensitive habitat area?
  • Does the project use subsurface intake (thus eliminating the problems caused by once-through-cooling)?
  • Is it close to the shoreline or away from the shoreline?
  • Will it be a publicly or privately owned facility?
  • Did developers coordinate early and extensively with public agencies and other stakeholders?

Three months was the shortest time for full permitting of an ocean desalination project, Luster said. That was a relatively small facility in Sand City that produces 330 acre feet of water per year (Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach plant would produce 56,000af). The average length of time so far has been 7 months, according to Luster.

“If you have a well designed and planned facility the permitting process shouldn’t be any problem at all,” Luster said.

Poseidon’s Huntington Beach plant still hasn’t finished its permitting process after 10 years. Environmental Impact Report issues remain for the Coastal Commission, the final permitting stop, to resolve, but for the past five years the company has repeatedly failed to comply with the commission’s requests for information about the project. Also, the project’s opponents have filed an appeal with the commission over a 2010 Local Coastal Plan permit given by the city.

Those issues could be resolved by the commission sometime in 2013. But given unresolved financing and contractual issues, when or if the plant will ever be built is still an open question.

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Interview with Mesa Water’s Paul Shoenberger on CalDesal


By John Earl
Surf City Voice

In January, I sat down for 30 minutes with Paul Shoenberger, the general manager for the Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa, California, to talk about CalDesal a non-profit organization whose 70 or so members, according to April, 2011 stats (neither Mesa nor CalDesal will release up to date figures), are about evenly divided between public water agencies and private water-related companies.

CalDesal lobbies for the construction of ocean and groundwater water desalination (although the emphasis is mostly on ocean desalination) and for the “streamlining” of environmental regulations to help achieve that goal.

Mesa Water Directors James Atkinson and James Fisler mix up business with pleasure at CalDesal mixer. Photo: Public records

Shortly into the 21st Century, plans to build ocean desalination plants where proposed for the cities of Carlsbad and Huntington Beach. Most of the permitting process has been completed for both plants but huge financial obstacles remain after construction costs and estimated water rates have skyrocketed.

Poseidon Resources Inc. would build the two nearly identical ocean desalination plants, each of which will suck in over 100 million gallons of sea water each per day to produce 50 million gallons of potable drinking water. They would be the largest ocean desalination plants in the United States at an estimated cost of over $700 million each.

In 2006, twenty-nine ocean desalination plants of various sizes were envisioned for the California coastline all the way to Santa Cruz, including a 15 million gallon per day facility that just finished its testing phase in Dana Point.

But after more than a decade of planning and marketing, and pushing projects through the planning and permitting process, a tight coalition of water industry leaders, real estate developers, and public-sector technocrats is far from realizing its desalination dream.

Only nine ocean desalination proposals remain in contention and not a single one has broken ground or seems likely to anytime soon.

That’s good news for opposition groups who have long claimed that ocean desalination is too costly and damaging to the ocean environment, and that conservation, sewage water reclamation, and increased water capture and storage are the right methods for ensuring an adequate water supply for California in the future.

Shoenberger and other proponents, however, officially insist that ocean desalination is not a “silver bullet” but will be a vital part of California’s water portfolio. They depict the process as environmentally sound and sustainable and say that costs for desalinated ocean water will one day be less than the costs of imported water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River.

In any case, they say, developing ocean desalination infrastructure is worth the extra cost due to potentially disastrous water supply outcomes for California from earthquakes and drought, and that it will help create badly needed jobs.

But public opposition to building ocean desalination plants along the coast has grown stronger over the past decade along with other potential obstacles to plans to construct ocean desalination plants in California.

CalDesal mixer and board meeting

Paul Shoenberger (r) with CalDesal member at 2011 spring board meeting/mixer. Photo: Public records

Once-through-cooling, the intake method preferred by desalination proponents because it sucks in huge quantities of sea water through already existing intake systems attached to electrical power generating plants – like exist in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach – is deemed destructive to the coast’s fragile balance of marine life by ocean scientists, and state regulators have ordered it to be phased out within a decade.

How that ban will apply to ocean desalination, if at all, is under consideration by state regulators. Opponents and proponents are vying for influence in that debate.

In the midst of a weak economy, and as the research and development needed to provide the promised cost-saving technological improvements has reached a dead end, even some long-time ocean desalination proponents are now questioning the efficacy of large desalination projects. Read the full story

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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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