Back­ers of tech­nol­ogy hope Carls­bad plant will dis­arm crit­ics

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Tony Perry

CARLS­BAD, Calif. — For one group of in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tion­eers com­ing to San Diego this sum­mer, the high­light prob­a­bly won’t be the panel dis­cus­sions or tech­ni­cal ex­hibits or even the vis­its to the zoo, SeaWorld or Petco Park.

For the ex­pected 1,500-plus peo­ple at­tend­ing the In­ter­na­tional De­sali­na­tion Assn. World Congress, the high­light will be a Sept. 4 tour of the $1-bil­lion de­sali­na­tion plant un­der con­struc­tion in Carls­bad.

The plant is touted as the largest de­sali­na­tion project in the Western Hemi­sphere. The tech­nol­ogy be­ing in­stalled, though not al­to­gether new, has been up­graded by ex­perts from an Is­raeli com­pany. The Is­raelis will help run the plant and are look­ing to hire former U.S. Marines to work there.

Thou­sands of de­sali­na­tion and wa­ter re­cy­cling plants have been built around the world, with some of the big­gest in the Mid­dle East, North Africa and the Caribbean. The Carls­bad plant, set to be­gin op­er­a­tion by Thanks­giv­ing, is mak­ing its de­but just as drought has be­come a cri­sis across Cal­i­for­nia and the West.

For Po­sei­don Wa­ter, the Bos­ton com­pany build­ing the plant — and for the in­ter­na­tional de­sali­na­tion in­dus­try — it presents an op­por­tu­nity to try to dis­prove the crit­i­cism that dogs such projects: that they are ex­or­bi­tantly ex­pen­sive, hog en­ergy and dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment.

“Carls­bad is go­ing to change the

way we see wa­ter in Cal­i­for­nia for decades,” said Peter MacLag­gan, a Po­sei­don Wa­ter vice pres­i­dent. “It’s not a sil­ver bul­let to solve all our wa­ter prob­lems, but it’s go­ing to be another tool in the tool­box.”

Though it might be lost on some of this sum­mer’s con­ven­tion-go­ers, San Diego has a long his­tory with de­sali­na­tion.

The re­gion took it as a clar­ion call when, in 1961, Pres­i­dent Kennedy de­clared: “If we could ever, com­pet­i­tively, at a cheap rate, get fresh wa­ter from saltwater that would be in the long-range in­ter­ests of hu­man­ity [and] re­ally dwarf any other sci­en­tific ac­com­plish­ments.”

The fed­eral govern­ment built a plant for the Navy on Point Loma. (It was dis­man­tled in 1964 and taken to the Guan­tanamo Bay naval base when Fidel Cas­tro threat­ened to cut off its wa­ter sup­ply. It op­er­ated well into the 1980s.)

Gen­eral Atomics in La Jolla did pi­o­neer­ing work on de­vel­op­ing the mem­brane tech­nol­ogy that cleans salt and other im­pu­ri­ties from sea­wa­ter through a process called re­verse os­mo­sis. One of the pi­o­neers, Don Bray, spun off his own com­pany.

It was the be­gin­ning of mak­ing San Diego County what in­dus­try vet­eran Doug Eis­berg calls “the Sil­i­con Val­ley of de­sali­na­tion.” Dozens of com­pa­nies em­ploy 3,000 work­ers to pro­vide the del­i­cate, com­plex mem­branes needed for the world’s plants that spe­cial­ize in de­sali­na­tion and wa­ter re­use.

To of­fi­cials of the In­ter­na­tional De­sali­na­tion Assn., in­clud­ing Eis­berg, San Diego “is the epi­cen­ter of de­sali­na­tion and wa­ter re­use de­vel­op­ment in the U.S.A. [and] the undis­puted birth­place of com­mer­cial re­verse os­mo­sis.”

But the de­sali­na­tion process re­mains a tar­get of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, which say it kills fish and cre­ates pol­lu­tion with the brine left be­hind af­ter the wa­ter is pu­ri­fied.

The Carls­bad plant suc­cess­fully fought mul­ti­ple law­suits in its bid for the nec­es­sary per­mits. Still, fu­ture plant pro­pos­als, such as the one Po­sei­don wants to build in Hunt­ing­ton Beach, can ex­pect strong po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion.

“Carls­bad is the horse that got away. Let’s make sure it’s not re­peated,” Joe Geever, former Cal­i­for­nia pol­icy co­or­di­na­tor for the Surfrider Foun­da­tion, said at a State Wa­ter Re­sources Con­trol Board meet­ing re­cently.

De­sali­na­tion should be “an op­tion of last re­sort,” Rita Kam­palath, sci­ence and pol­icy di­rec­tor for Heal the Bay, told the wa­ter board.

Cal­i­for­nia has 11 de­salina- tion plants — some no longer in use, some used only in­ter­mit­tently — ac­cord­ing to the board.

The San Diego County Wa­ter Au­thor­ity is bullish on de­sali­na­tion — but also re­al­is­tic. The au­thor­ity has pledged to buy the Carls­bad plant’s en­tire out­put of wa­ter for 30 years; by 2020, de­sali­na­tion is ex­pected to sat­isfy 7% of the wa­ter needs of the county’s 3 mil­lion res­i­dents.

“We are very con­fi­dent that Carls­bad is go­ing to op­er­ate suc­cess­fully,” said Bob Ya­mada, lead en­gi­neer and wa­ter re­source man­ager for the county wa­ter au­thor­ity. “We’re go­ing to have a world­class fa­cil­ity.”

The Carls­bad wa­ter will be more ex­pen­sive than wa­ter the county au­thor­ity buys from the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter District of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and the Im­pe­rial Ir­ri­ga­tion District. The de­sali­na­tion wa­ter will boost the monthly bill of the av­er­age res­i­den­tial wa­ter cus­tomer by $5 to $7, San Diego of­fi­cials pre­dict.

But those same of­fi­cials in­sist that even with the higher rates, de­sali­na­tion is a good deal, a way to fur­ther de­crease the county’s reliance on Los An­ge­les-based MWD and get a sup­ply of wa­ter that can­not be im­per­iled by drought.

County wa­ter of­fi­cials have dis­cussed for years build­ing a de­sali­na­tion plant at Camp Pendle­ton, north of Carls­bad.

What­ever its other at­tributes, a de­sali­na­tion plant is not a quick fix given the com­plex design phase, pol­i­tick­ing, per­mit­ting process, lit­i­ga­tion and con­struc­tion. The Carls­bad plant took 14 years. Add the dif­fi­culty of deal­ing with the fed­eral govern­ment, and the process could seem glacial.

Ya­mada sees the pos­si­bil­ity of such a Camp Pendle­ton plant as “on the longterm plan­ning hori­zon, post-2030 prob­a­bly.”

The Carls­bad plant is at the Encina Power Sta­tion, for­merly owned by San Diego Gas & Elec­tric and now part of NRG En­ergy. By us­ing the same wa­ter in­take sys­tem as the power plant, Po­sei­don says it will re­duce its use of en­ergy. Tech­nol­ogy im­prove­ments have in­creased ef­fi­ciency and helped re­duce the per-gal­lon cost, MacLag­gan said.

The wa­ter in­take will be on the sur­face rather than far be­low it. The lat­ter method is pre­ferred by en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, who say it is less harm­ful to fish. Also the brine cre­ated by the de­sali­na­tion process will be dis­trib­uted closer to shore than at some plants. Po­sei­don says it has a process to di­lute the brine and make it less harm­ful.

The com­pany also in­sists it has found ways to re­duce the fish kill. State wa­ter board mem­bers are ea­ger for up­dates once the plant opens. When the power plant is de­com­mis­sioned, Po­sei­don will re­quire a new per­mit, with crit­ics ready to re­state their ob­jec­tions.

But to the In­ter­na­tional De­sali­na­tion Assn. con­ven­tion­eers, some com­ing from as far away as In­dia, China and the Per­sian Gulf, the Carls­bad plant rep­re­sents some­thing bold at a time when bold­ness is re­quired.

“The Carls­bad de­sali­na­tion plant marks a mile­stone, an im­por­tant step in se­cur­ing Cal­i­for­nia’s fu­ture and its wa­ter sup­plies,” Ab­dul­lah Al-Al­shaikh, pres­i­dent of the as­so­ci­a­tion, wrote in an email from Riyadh, Saudi Ara­bia. “The Pacific Ocean is a sus­tain­able wa­ter source that won’t run dry.”

‘Carls­bad is the horse that got away. Let’s make sure it’s not re­peated.’ —Joe Geever, de­sali­na­tion op­po­nent for­merly with Surfrider Foun­da­tion

Pho­tog raphs by Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

THE HEART of Po­sei­don Wa­ter’s de­sali­na­tion plant in Carls­bad is an in­ter­con­nected sys­tem of 2,500 re­verse os­mo­sis pres­sure ves­sels ca­pa­ble of fil­ter­ing 50 mil­lion gallons of sea­wa­ter a day. The $1-bil­lion plant is ex­pected to be in op­er­a­tion by Thanks­giv­ing.

PETER MacLag­gan of Po­sei­don Wa­ter says the plant “is go­ing to change the way we see wa­ter in Cal­i­for­nia for decades.”

Pho­tog raphs by Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

PIPE FIT­TER Steven Montes, right, in­stalls a pres­sure re­lief valve at the Carls­bad de­sali­na­tion plant. For the de­sali­na­tion in­dus­try, the plant presents a chance to dis­prove crit­i­cism that the tech­nol­ogy is ex­or­bi­tantly ex­pen­sive, hogs en­ergy and dam­ages the en­vi­ron­ment.

SAN­TI­AGO GOMEZ ap­plies a pro­tec­tive coat­ing on a pipe at the Carls­bad plant, which is touted as the largest de­sali­na­tion project in the Western Hemi­sphere.

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