Desalination projects raise issues of
private profit, public interest
By Bettina Boxall
Los Angeles Times
March 21, 2004
CARLSBAD, Calif. - A few hundred yards
from the Pacific Ocean, at the end of a labyrinth of blue pipes and
filters, Peter MacLaggan fills a plastic cup with water. This, he hopes,
is his company's future.
It's purified sea water, stripped of its
salts and ready for the tap. MacLaggan's firm, Poseidon Resources, is
one of a handful of private businesses that want to sell Californians
tens of millions of gallons a day of desalinated water.
Their sea-to-tap operations reflect the
state's renewed interest in ocean desalination, which planners say could
provide more than 1.5 million Californians with drinking water by 2030.
Although financial and environmental
obstacles to desalination remain, more than 20 desalting proposals are
under consideration on the California coast. Most are from public
agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the
city of Santa Cruz and the Municipal Water District of Orange County.
But the most ambitious and potentially
contentious are from the private sector, which, using public subsidies,
wants to play a major role in developing a new water supply, something
done largely by governments for the past century.
Poseidon, a small, privately held company
based in Connecticut, proposes to build the biggest ocean-desalination
plants in the Western Hemisphere on the Southern California coast, one
in Huntington Beach and one in Carlsbad.
Each would be capable of producing 50
million gallons of drinking water a day.
To the north, California-American Water
Co., a private utility owned by a German conglomerate, is proposing a 9
million-gallon-a-day desalination facility at Moss Landing on Monterey
Bay. And a consortium of private engineering companies is floating plans
for a 5 million-gallon-a-day desalination plant on the shores of Morro
The private plans have stirred concerns
among some public officials and advocacy groups. They worry that a
public resource, sea water, will be exploited for private profit.
They further warn that multinational
companies could try to use international trade agreements to get around
local and state environmental regulation of coastal plants.
Proponents say the public's interests
would be protected by long-term contracts with private water companies.
They note that private water utilities have operated in California since
its infancy and provide about one-fifth of its drinking water.
They argue that in an era of government
budget cuts and huge deficits, it makes sense for private investors to
shoulder the financial risks of getting new technology into operation.
"We need to get creative," said
MacLaggan, a senior vice president of Poseidon who joined the company
three years ago and previously worked in water-supply planning for the
San Diego County Water Authority.
Advances in desalting technology,
pressure on Southern California to reduce its share of Colorado River
water and the demands of an expanding population have turned the state's
gaze to the sea.
"This is a potentially limitless
supply of water," said Charles Keene, executive officer of the
state Water Desalination Task Force, which concluded last year that
desalination could play a meaningful role in California's water supply.
The task force acknowledged that private
desalination operations raise "unique issues," but it did not
Despite a drop in desalination costs over
the past decade, desalinated sea water remains at least twice as
expensive as conventional water supplies in Southern California.
To develop the market, the Metropolitan
Water District of Southern California, the region's largest water
supplier, plans to offer subsidies to member agencies. The public water
districts could use the money to offset the costs of producing
desalinated water or to buy water from a private producer.
A national alliance of water agencies,
which includes the Southern California district and the parent company
of California-American, is lobbying for congressional authorization of
hundreds of millions of dollars in energy grants to offset production
Poseidon is counting on the water
district subsidies to make its water more attractive to public
customers. It also needs approval from local authorities and the state
Coastal Commission, neither of which is proving easy to convince.
Environmentalists say the plants will
promote population growth by creating an additional water source,
threaten marine life with high-salinity discharges and consume large
amounts of energy.
Poseidon says it can deal with the
environmental issues and will continue to push both projects. But it
still has to overcome the commission's skepticism.
In a draft report last year, the
commission staff outlined a potential clash between the private sale of
purified seawater and the state's Coastal Act, which considers ocean
water a public resource to be protected.
The document also pointed to several
cases in which multinational companies pursuing projects in the United
States or elsewhere have filed claims under international trade treaties
challenging government decisions that they say hurt their businesses.
"Right now we're just asking
questions. Right now we don't have the answers," said environmental
scientist Tom Luster, lead staffer on the report.
"I think the public is very
uncomfortable with the privatization of something as essential as water,
especially after the energy crisis, and we saw the manipulation of
energy," said Huntington Beach Councilwoman Debbie Cook, who voted
against the Poseidon project and was a member of the state Water
Desalination Task Force.
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