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Desalination plant moves forward; legal challenges focused on environmental concerns

An aerial photo shows where San Diego’s first water desalination plant will be located in Carlsbad, adjacent to the Encina Power Station. Developed through a partnership between Poseidon Water and the San Diego County Water Authority, the plant is under construction and will be operational in 2015. Photo courtesy of Poseidon Water

San Diego County's first desalination plant, now under construction in Carlsbad, will employ the latest technology, offset the region’s dependency on imported water and create jobs. But the cost of that water will not come cheap -- lawsuits filed by environmental groups during the plant’s permitting phase called into question its energy use and effect on marine life.

The $922 million Carlsbad Desalination Project is the result of a public-private partnership between Poseidon Water and the San Diego County Water Authority. According to Poseidon, it will be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere and will generate 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, providing water for up to 112,000 families of four, or 300,000 people.

It will be the first desalination plant in California.

The plant is at the site of the Encina Power Station near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon and should be fully operational by November 2015, said Peter MacLaggan, vice president of Poseidon Water. Construction crews have laid about 6 to 8 percent of the 10-mile-long pipeline that will take water from Carlsbad to the water authority’s aqueduct in San Marcos.

Work on the plant is 15 percent completed.

Unlike in the Middle East, desalination isn’t commonplace in the United States, but “two things have changed, particularly in Southern California,” MacLaggan said. “Imported water is no longer cheap and plentiful, and the reverse-osmosis technology has gotten pretty good.”

San Diego currently imports about 80 to 85 percent of its water. Local sources, including recycled water and groundwater, make up the rest. With the region’s population at more than 3 million people, however, the plant’s output will fulfill only 10 percent of the county’s water needs.

Still, San Diego is “on the road to having a significant new local water supply for the region, which means a locally controlled and drought-proof supply being added to our portfolio of water resources,” said Bob Yamada, water resources manager with the Water Authority.

Poseidon hired several key contractors to build the plant, including Israeli company IDE Technololgies, which has built and operated 400 desal plants around the world. IDE is a subcontractor to Kiewit-Shea Desalination, a joint venture formed between Kiewit Infrastructure West and J.F. Shea Construction. Shea built the Hoover Dam and Golden Gate Bridge 80 years ago; Kiewit has built dams, reservoirs, treatment plants and highways.

Over the next year, the plant will generate 2,500 jobs, most of those from local companies. Poseidon is also tapping several local companies for supplies and engineering services, including Morrow-Meadows and Simon Wong. Two North County companies, Hydronautics and Toray, are in the bidding to supply the plant’s reverse-osmosis filters.

Ten years in the making, the project has jumped through a series of regulatory hoops and had its share of controversy. The Surfrider Foundation, along with other environmental groups listed as plaintiffs, filed several lawsuits, two against the California State Lands Commission and the city of Carlsbad, and two specifically targeting the plant’s environmental impact report.

“We would have preferred to see subsurface intakes, which means you’re not gobbling up all the fish in the surrounding area and the sea eggs and the sea life and the marine mammals,” said Belinda Smith, a Surfrider activist.

The plant will use the Encina Power Station’s ocean intake, even though the state will require the power station to come into compliance with new rules for its intake in 2017.

Surfrider also wanted the plant to use either solar and wind power to drive the energy required for the desalination process, because it considers water and energy issues interconnected, especially as they relate to climate change, Smith said. With the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station now offline, she said, the desalination plant won’t be able to rely on it for power.

“Surfrider is not completely opposed to desalination,” Smith said. “We’re just opposed to it when there have been no conservation measures taken, and we haven’t exhausted recycled water options.”

Smith said recycled water is much cheaper than its desalinated counterpart. The Water Authority agreed that desalinated water will cost twice as much as the water it currently imports, but the agency predicted that with imported water rates increasing, desalinated water will be less expensive in about 10 to 20 years.

To offset the effect of the plant on the environment, Poseidon must create a 66 1/2-acre wetland in the South Bay. Its permit also requires it to monitor operations once the plant is online to make sure that it’s not more destructive to marine life than had been disclosed in the permitting phase, MacLaggan said.

Smith said those are hardly concessions. At the same time, she said, Surfrider was “successful in demonstrating to the agencies in California that we’re not going to take these projects lying down. We just aren’t.”

-Nicholls is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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