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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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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: 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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How to Shrink America’s Energy Footprint


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

Americans today are generally aware that we consume far more energy per capita than most of the world’s peoples, over four times the world average and double that of regions like Japan and Europe which enjoy a similar standard of living. Most of us reflect on home gas and electric bills plus the fuel pumped into our cars’ gas tanks when judging our personal energy footprints.

But in reality it is all the “stuff” Americans accumulate that contributes most heavily to our total energy consumption. To understand why this is true, it is necessary to first get a handle on the ways societies utilize energy.

By convention, the energy-consuming activities of society are divided into the four sectors described below: residential, commercial, industry and transportation. The pie chart insert shows the percentage of total U.S. energy delivered in a year to each sector, according to recent U.S. Energy Information Administration figures. Note that the very same pie chart describes the average per capita energy consumption of Americans in the four sectors.

The residential sector reflects the energy used to run our homes (to power lighting, appliances and heating & cooling systems) and, at 15 percent, it’s the next to smallest pie piece. At 40 percent, the transportation sector is largest but includes all energy inputted to move both people and goods about, be it by car, truck, train, plane, boat or pipeline. Given that about half this amount goes into shuttling people, this means that personal transportation and running our homes together account for only about 35 percent of the energy we Americans use.

An additional 11 percent goes to meeting the energy demands of commercial/institutional buildings which constitute the entire service sector of society – businesses, organizations and institutions including schools, hospitals, correctional facilities, stores, restaurants,  theaters, etc. – all of which expend energy for lighting, temperature control systems and appliances like computers and faxes. Though relatively modest, the energy that supports these shared facets of society is overlooked by most of us when contemplating our energy footprint.

Read the full story

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Americans, with 100 ‘energy servants’ each, share blame for Gulf oil spill


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

There’s no shortage of finger pointing as the now worst oil spill in U.S. history continues its assault on the Gulf Coast’s ecology and economy.

A USA TODAY/Gallop Poll taken in late May, for example, found that 73 percent of Americans feel that British Petroleum (BP) is doing a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job of handling the crisis, and 60 percent evaluated the federal government’s response in the same unfavorable terms.

Confronted with images of birds swathed in crude oil and prognostications that the Gulf region’s fishing and tourism industries might never recover, the urge to form a posse,

Gulf-oiled pelicans awaiting clean up. Photo courtesy of IBRRC.

so to speak, to rout out those responsible and hold them accountable is all too human.

But are we Americans shocked enough yet by the enormity of this calamity to own up to our personal role in it?  After all, it’s ultimately our nation’s energy-intense lifestyle and attachment to fossil fuels that gives companies like BP and our government the implicit go-ahead to pursue oil at the risk of the very kind of disaster now ensuing.

Unless you’re a physicist or energy wonk of some sort, hearing that the average yearly per-capita energy consumption in the United States in 2008 was 337 million Btu probably tells you little about your energy footprint. Knowing that a Btu is an energy standard equivalent to 252 calories – about what’s contained in a Snickers candy bar – is probably of little help either.

That’s why Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College has been giving demonstrations for the last decade which impart a real gut-level, hands-on feel for the energy it takes to support the typical American lifestyle.

His demonstration is simple but ingenious. A volunteer is asked to turn a hand crank which, through a geared system, drives an electric generator connected to two 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

The upshot is that a typical person can turn the crank fast enough to light one 100-watt light bulb, but not two. To add to the muscular feel for the effort required to turn the crank, Wolfson points out that it takes roughly the same energy output as doing deep knee bends at a rate of one per second. Read the full story

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