In the News


Santa Cruz and San Diego desal deconstructed

By Erica Aitken, Paul Graz and Gary Miles
Special to the Sentinel, 7/13/13

The recent "Desalination and San Diego" editorial failed to mention many of the most important facts relevant to Santa Cruz, including nerve-rattling similarities and also key differences between the two projects.

Despite proponent promises, desal plants are often boondoggles that rarely create local jobs, frequently malfunction and invariably generate damaging environmental impacts.

The Carlsbad plant owned by Poseidon Resources started development in 1998. Last year, Global Water Intelligence, which covers the manufactured water industry, listed the project among the "Top 10 Desalination Disasters" of all time. If it goes online, the Carlsbad plant will be a California rarity.

While Poseidon's Carlsbad adventure may work out, don't look for it to become a poster child for desal because desal is all about money and energy. It takes a lot of both to convert ocean water into drinking water, driving the price of desal well above all other sources.

For instance, it is estimated that Santa Cruz water rates will go up 50 percent and in the Soquel Water district by 125 percent. Frequently, water infrastructure projects go over budget. The fact that the estimated costs of both projects have more than tripled since first proposed should cause red lights and sirens to go off. And we can count on the price of desal water going up with inflation and escalating energy costs. Our water bills will hit unforeseen heights.

Other places have passed on using the Pacific for drinking water. Los Angeles and Long Beach shelved desal concluding that conservation and recycling are easier and cheaper.

Australia offers a sobering lesson about rushing into desal. After experiencing a dry spell, Australia built six expensive plants. Then the rains returned just as the plants were coming online and they were no longer needed. Four of the six still sit idle because cheaper water is available and ratepayers are saddled with white elephants they must pay for.

In the 1990s, Santa Barbara had a similar experience, when it built a desal plant during a drought that ended before it was finished. The $34 million facility was never used beyond the testing phase when it was mothballed and dismantled.

In the late 1990s, Poseidon tried to build a similar plant in Tampa Bay, Fla. However, there were major technological problems, costs escalated, and the plant continues to operate below capacity. The public water authority ended up buying out Poseidon when its backers went bankrupt.

Now, Poseidon seeks to open the floodgate for many other plants by promoting unsustainable growth, at the expense of the population and environment.

Last year, the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that studies water issues, published a report on desal costs and financing, available at

Santa Cruz situated along the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary should heed the experiences in Australia, Tampa Bay and Santa Barbara. The better solution is to invest in water recycling, increase conservation, expand storage, and foster interdistrict collaboration through water transfers.

In many California communities up to 70 percent of all household water is used outdoors. We need to learn more sensible ways to live with the ongoing cycles of drought and rain. The water sector accounts for 20 percent of the state's energy use, and desal will only hike that percentage.

Finally, the biggest difference. San Diego residents did not have the right vote on the desal plant, but Santa Cruz does. Let's vote this project out!

Erica Aitken, Paul Graz and Gary Miles are longtime Santa Cruz residents and members of

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