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Biggest U.S. desal plant ‘by far’ made public by San Diego, California water agency

WaterWebster.org Staff Report

Originally published May 14, 2009; Updated May 19, 2009

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A San Diego County Water Authority committee has unveiled plans to build a seawater desalination plant on the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton that would be ‘by far’ the largest in the U.S.

The 50 million-to-150 million-gallon per day project will cost more than $2 billion, if built to full capacity. And, it could supply enough additional water to meet the needs of 24 agencies, including the city of San Diego, that buy water wholesale from the county authority, said Water Resources Manager Bob Yamada.

A summary feasibility study presented to the board’s Water Planning Committee May 14 didn’t include a completion date.  If the full board ultimately approves the project, construction couldn’t begin until environmental studies are conducted and a long list of state and federal permits and agreements are obtained, a process that could take years. Committee members discussed the proposal, but took no action.

Desalination—removing salt from water—is seen by water experts as one tool in a catalog of options for ensuring an adequate water supply to growing areas. Other proposals include significant conservation efforts and recycling sewage and other non-potable supplies.

Drought and reduced water deliveries from northern California are forcing water agencies throughout southern California to seek ways to conserve and augment supplies.

But seawater desalination projects can be controversial because huge water intake lines and brine discharged back into the ocean damage the environment and the process of removing salt from sea water uses heavy amounts of energy. Those issues and others, including costs to consumers, are part of the permit process.

At full capacity, the proposed new reverse osmosis plant would be three times larger than the $300 million Poseidon Resources plant in near-by Carlsbad, according to the Water Authority’s summary feasibility study.

The Poseidon project is the largest currently proposed for the U.S., meeting the needs of 300,000 residents. It would produce 50 million gallons a day. Poseidon received its final government approval this week and hopes to obtain private financing and complete construction by 2012.

Yamada said in a telephone interview if the Camp Pendleton proposal is built to its 150-gallon-per-day capacity, “as far as I know, it would be, by far, the largest desal project in the country.”

The world’s largest desalination plant—211 million gallons a day—is in Jubail, Saudi Arabia.  It opened last month.

Joe Geever, California policy coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, which has challenged the Poseidon desalination plant, called the new proposal "amazing."

"That's a gigantic facility," he said in a telephone interview. "It raises a lot of concerns about ocean desalination that haven't been addressed."

One of the biggest concerns, he said, is the lack of overall state planning for desalination projects and the cumulative impact on sea life of a variety of plants along the coast.

"Somebody needs to come up with a regional plan," he said.

In addition, he said the heavy energy requirements of desalination plants haven't been addressed statewide even though "the grid system is already stretched."

On May 12, the Surfrider Foundation lost a San Diego Superior Court battle to prevent the Poseidon project in Del Mar from going ahead. Judge Judith Hayes ruled the California Coastal Commission adequately protected marine life when it voted to approve the Del Mar plant.

The new San Diego County Water Authority proposal is intended to provide water in conjunction with the Poseidon project, Yamada said, not compete with it.

The feasibility study outlined a project that could be built in increments, with the first stage possibly as small as 50 million gallons-a-day at a cost of $1.25 billion. If the first stage is 100 million gallons per day, that cost was estimated at $1.91 billion. The final 50 million gallon section could be added later.

Initially, the San Diego County Water Authority looked at the Southern California Edison nuclear power plant on the coast at San Onofre as a possible site for its desalination plant. But, according to the feasibility study, Edison had concerns the desalination project would interfere with its future energy development plans, so the Water Authority, working with Camp Pendleton staff, now is considering either of two 26-to-30-acre sites along Interstate 5 on the southwest edge of the huge Marine base.

A formal agreement would have to be reached with the Marines for the desalination plant to be built on the base.

The feasibility report said benefits to Camp Pendleton included increasing the reliability of the base water supply, improving the quality of its water, providing a wastewater disposal option and possibly offering the base a source of emergency power.

Power to run the desalination plant would come from either traditional power lines or a natural gas power source built specifically for the project.

To move forward, the Water Authority must approve funds in the 2010-2011 budget to continue to pay for planning, including technical studies and an Environmental Impact Report. The Water Authority and Camp Pendleton also must reach an agreement that allows site and environmental studies and defines the roles and responsibilities of each side.

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©2009 WaterWebster.org

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