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Water official: Desal plant one more supply option

The push for water desalination plants in Southern California -- and a facility being contemplated near Camp Pendleton -- were topics of discussion at a luncheon held Wednesday by the Society of American Military Engineers.

Bob Yamada, resources director at the San Diego County Water Authority, joined Peter MacLaggan -- senior vice president of Poseidon Resources, which is building California's first large-scale desalination plant in Carlsbad -- to discuss the challenges faced by desalination developers.

Desalination creates pure drinking water from seawater through a process called reverse osmosis -- an advanced filtering technique.

With current technology, two gallons of seawater, when processed, will create one gallon of fresh water and one gallon of extra salty seawater, which is then discharged into the ocean. It provides a potentially limitless supply of fresh water.

San Diego currently gets a majority of its water from the Colorado River, but environmental restrictions and an ongoing drought have jeopardized that supply, leading to shortages.

Yamada said his agency views desalination as just one more option to help keep taps flowing in the region.

"We need to focus on diversifying our water supply, the same way you would diversify your own financial portfolios," Yamada said. "This is the same concept -- don’t put all your eggs in one basket."

Two options are being considered for two different sites near Camp Pendleton. One design would process 100 million gallons of water a day and another option would process 150 million gallons.

The facilities would cost between $1.2 billion and $2 billion, respectively, to construct, with annual operating costs between $40 million and $90 million.

The proposed site would encompass about 25 acres, and would include a pipeline extending as far as 2 miles into the ocean, both to draw in seawater and expel brine, the salty byproduct.

Yamada said technical studies of the project should be completed by early 2012, but estimated the requisite environmental planning would take years longer. The theoretical plant could come on-line around 2020.

Poseidon's plant in Carlsbad shares space with the Encina Power Plant, a location that MacLaggan said offers some advantages.

Because the Encina plant uses seawater to cool its energy generation equipment, it already had the infrastructure needed to draw water in for desalination, and piggybacking off the existing facilities reduced costs slightly, he said.

Yamada said the water authority had tried to do something similar, and explored placing its proposed facility near the San Onofre Power Plant, but that idea proved unworkable.

Poseidon's plant, expected to be operational by 2013, faced years of regulatory hurdles and challenges from environmental groups before it was approved.

Yamada said the greenlighting of Poseidon's facility could pave the way for a more expedited process for the county's project, if it ultimately goes ahead -- but probably not.

"I always tell people it's good to go second," Yamada said. "Peter blazed a trail, so maybe we can do it a little faster, but I don’t know."

Send your comments to jon.campbell@sddt.com

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