Strains develop in desal plant partnership

January 28, 2004

After an impasse in negotiations with Poseidon Resources, a private firm that has proposed a public-private partnership for a desalination plant in Carlsbad, the San Diego County Water Authority is ready to step back and let Carlsbad and potentially other North County localities pursue this project.

Officials of the water authority say, their objective is diversification of the water supply, and desalination is an integral part of that diversification providing a projected 6 percent to 15 percent of the county's water supply by 2020. A Poseidon desalination plant at Encina could produce, with necessary economies of scale, from 22 acre-feet per year to 112,000 acre-feet per year.

Carlsbad now takes the lead on this project because, along with Oceanside, it was instrumental in introducing the water authority to Poseidon's proposal and can, by agreement, pursue it alone or with other cities. Part of the authority's duty, its officials have emphasized, is to give localities the opportunity to secure local water supplies, and to cooperate in those projects.

The Metropolitan Water District, from which the county got 85 percent of its water last year, anticipates average rate increases of 3.8 percent to 4.6 percent per year between 2004 and 2013, with possible increases of 4 percent to 7.5 percent in the next three years not counting a possible $1.8 billion increase in the MWD's capital improvement program. Its rates, in short, will rise.

As negotiating difficulties have led the water authority to pursue a parallel track to an alternative desalination plant at Encina, they also have led Carlsbad and Poseidon to pursue their parallel track as well. Poseidon already has leased the plant site, already collected the data for environmental review (for which it will pay) and applied for necessary permits. Glitches and roadblocks inevitably develop with water projects. But the water authority has handed this opportunity to diversify the region's quality, reliable water supply to Carlsbad and Poseidon. All of them should make the most of it.