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.
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.
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