Desal plant to begin supplying water soon

Posted at 7:05 PM, Dec 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-14 22:05:52-05

CARLSBAD, Calif. - A $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad that could provide a significant boost to the region's supply of potable water was dedicated Monday in the name of the late longtime Mayor Claude "Bud" Lewis.

Lewis was mayor of the North County coastal city for 24 years, part of the four decades he spent on the Carlsbad City Council. During that time, Lewis, who died last year, was instrumental in making Carlsbad the host city for the plant, which was constructed over the past three years at the inlet to the Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

"The Claude 'Bud' Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant opens a new chapter in water supply reliability for the San Diego region and the state by tapping the potential of the Pacific Ocean and reducing dependence on strained resources such as the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta," said Mark Weston, chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority.

"It is bolstering the San Diego region's self-reliance, and in turn, its future," he said.

Weston said the facility is a milestone in the agency's efforts to diversify the region's supply of fresh water, most of which is imported from the State Water Project and Colorado River.

"We're so pleased to finally be at the finish line," said Peter MacLaggan, vice president of Poseidon Water, the private firm that built and owns the plant.

Besides the plant itself, construction included installation of a 10-mile pipeline to carry fresh water to Water Authority facilities in San Marcos, along with upgrades to other SDCWA infrastructure.

When the reverse osmosis plant goes into full operation, it's expected to produce 50 million gallons of drinking water a day, roughly one-tenth of the region's supply and about one-third of the fresh water generated locally.

Approval was bitterly fought by environmental groups, which contended it would harm marine life.

"To me it's a sad day," said environmentalist Conner Everts of the Desal Response Group. "We realize we lost here despite the issues … We lost because of the drought. We lost because of politics, and we lost because of lobbying."

"If you look to the examples of where desalination has worked successfully around the world, you will see that those nations worked diligently to reduce demand before turning to desalination," Julia Chunn-Heer, policy manager for the Surfrider Foundation's San Diego County Chapter, said last week.

With state-mandated conservation efforts now in place, reducing revenue for local water districts, the financing arrangements will put taxpayers at risk, she said.

Everts said he opposed the plant because it was harmful to ocean life, it wasted energy, it's too expensive and San Diego County should have invested in recycled water first. He said they'd focus on future desalination projects.

"What we want to stop is dominoes happening to the north where it makes even less sense," he said, referring to a SDCWA plan to build a desalination plant on Camp Pendleton and Poseidon's efforts to build a plant in Huntington Beach.

"That's in the final stages of permitting," said MacLaggan. "The expectation is we'll be under construction late 2016 and operational by 2020."

MacLaggan said he expects the environmentalists to fight.

"We already are," said Everts. "We have been for many years."

"But they did have a positive impact," said MacLaggan. "We now have a plant that we can say is the only water treatment plant in California that is carbon neutral -- the only one."

He said Poseidon is doing environmental mitigation throughout San Diego County.

The Water Authority has the option to purchase the facility in 10 years. In three decades, the agency will have the right to buy the plant for $1, according to the SDCWA.