San Diego water glut threatens to overshadow new desalination plant

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Could turning seawater into drinking water help solve California’s water shortage? A dedication ceremony will take place in Carlsbad on Monday for the first large-scale desalination plant in the state and only the second in the nation. However, San Diego water customers may not necessarily be celebrating because they will have to pay an average of $5 more a month than they do now for water.

"I think it's the wrong solution for California," said Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute, an environmental think-tank. “The desalination plant is probably two or three times more expensive than imported water, and it’s probably 10 times more expensive than investments in improving efficiency, which cuts demand.”

The new plant cost $1 billion to build and will deliver about 50 million gallons a day to meet the needs of about 400,000 people, which is 8 percent of the region.

But unlike other parts of the state, San Diego County currently has plenty of water on hand thanks to drought conservation efforts and stored imported water. The county has enough to meet 90 percent of its regular demand.

Still, the San Diego County Water Authority is contractually obligated to buy whatever water is produced by the new Poseidon Water desalination plant.

Water authority deputy manager Sandy Kerl said customers need to see the desalination plant as a downpayment against water future shortages.

“We can’t just hope that we hope that we have enough water, " Kerl said. "We have to plan and make sure we have enough water for the region.”

San Diego water agencies will pay at least $113.6 million for water from the Carlsbad plant next year, which is more than double the $45.2 million they pay to import water from Northern California and the Colorado River, Kerl said. But she says in a decade, imported water will likely not be any cheaper.

"By the late 2020s, we anticipate the cost of this water [from desalination] will cross over the cost of water from the Metropolitan Water District," Kerl said, referring to the region's top wholesaler of imported water.

The opening in Carlsbad is being closely watched in Huntington Beach, where Poseidon Water, the same company that built the Carlsbad plant hopes to build another desalination plant by 2018. The company still needs approval from the California Coastal Commission. 

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