After years of planning, the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant, to be built and operated by the Poseidon corporation on the southwest edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, was approved late last year.
  • After years of planning, the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant, to be built and operated by the Poseidon corporation on the southwest edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, was approved late last year.
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"Dissent is not tolerated in San Diego’s water community,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at UCSD and director of its Urban Studies program. And a recent San Diego County Grand Jury report appears appears to be no exception.

“Reduce Dependence on Imported Water” came out on May 15. One searches the report in vain for an opposing point of view. “This report is a dereliction of duty by a not-so-grand jury,” says Erie. “It has the fingerprints of the [San Diego County] Water Authority all over it. The grand jury is frequently a ‘pass-through’ agency, if you get my drift. That’s what the Water Authority claims it is with [Southern California’s regional] Metropolitan Water District’s rate increases.”

As of last year, Metropolitan supplied 47 percent of local water, still the largest single source for the county. But that amount is down from 95 percent in 1995. The reduction was accomplished largely through a deal San Diego made in 2003 with the Imperial Irrigation District.

The new grand-jury report praises the local Water Authority’s newest efforts to diversify supplies for greater “water reliability.” It highlights conservation, aquifers, and storage but focuses mainly on desalination and water reclamation.

Although the “toilet to tap” attack on water reclamation tarnished its image, desalination is popular, according to the Water Authority. Polls the agency sponsored show 68 percent of respondents are prepared to pay higher water bills “to add desalinated seawater to the supply, including 58 percent who said that they would pay an extra five dollars per month.” After years of planning, the Carlsbad desalination plant, to be built and operated by the Poseidon corporation on the southwest edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, was approved late last year.

After years of planning, the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant, to be built and operated by the Poseidon corporation on the southwest edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, was approved late last year.

According to the grand jury, which received all cost estimates from the Water Authority, the Carlsbad plant will produce 56,000 acre-feet of potable water annually by 2016, or 50 million gallons per day and 8 to 10 percent of the county’s water.

But will the costs of these new “water independence” moves be worth it, especially when added to what the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water already has done to San Diegans? According to the U-T San Diego on May 26, local consumers “have seen rates soar between 7.5 percent and 15.4 percent for untreated water and 7.7 percent to 18.1 percent for treated water during each of the past five years.”

On the costs of desalination, the difference between Steve Erie’s views and “the company line” are striking. The effort requires significant expenditures for upgrading the Twin Oaks Valley Treatment Plant in San Marcos and the pipelines to move the water there. Including dollars for energy to run the desalination process, the Water Authority estimates total costs will come to between $2042 to $2290 per acre-foot “in 2012 dollars,” for an increase in an average household’s water bill of $5 to $7 per month.

“While the water initially will cost more than current sources,” the grand jury claims, “analysis by the [Water Authority] indicates that imports from the [Metropolitan Water District] could be more expensive than desalinated seawater by the late 2020s.” Earlier in the report, the grand jury states that Metropolitan’s “water costs are increasing at approximately a 6% yearly rate.”

UCSD professor Steve Erie calls the plan “wishful thinking at its worst.”

Desalination would require expensive upgrades to the Twin Oaks Valley Treatment Plant in San Marcos, and a new pipeline to move the water there.

But “the Water Authority,” says Erie, “assumes the worst-case scenario for the Metropolitan Water Department’s long-term water costs and the best-case scenario for long-term desalination costs.” They then “arrive at a highly questionable conclusion that by the late 2020s Metropolitan’s water might cost more than desal[inated] water. Will Metropolitan’s water costs inexorably rise at 6 percent (or more) per year for the next 15 years? Highly unlikely. Will desal[ination] costs (including power costs) remain the same and not increase for the next 15 years? Highly unlikely. This is wishful thinking at its worst.”

Erie expresses a similar disagreement over the agency’s costs for reclaimed water. The grand jury says it learned that “the total cost of potable quality reclaimed water would likely be about $2000 per acre-foot. That is costlier than water purchased from the [Metropolitan Water District], which totals about $1000 per acre-foot, according to the Water Authority.”

So, “San Diego ratepayers,” says Erie, “will be paying $1000 per acre-foot more for relying on local reclaimed water than MWD-supplied water.

“And this presumes,” he adds, “that the price of reclaimed water (and the costs associated with producing it) does not increase.”

Erie has been doing battle with the Water Authority for over 16 years. In 1996, he wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times that the paper titled “A San Diego ‘Chinatown’ with Los Angeles as Victim.” The piece was largely a criticism of the Water Authority’s efforts to purchase water from the Imperial Valley. As Erie would later point out in his books Beyond Chinatown (2006) and Paradise Plundered (2011), a needy buyer and a fat seller eventually drove up the price. And, since San Diego had never built its own pipeline to the Imperial Valley, it also had to pay Metropolitan for “wheeling” rights in its pipeline.

The result, says Erie, has been that San Diego has for years paid higher water rates than it would have by staying loyal to Metropolitan. The price Erie paid, he says, was being “heckled” by Water Authority “truth squads” whenever it was announced he’d speak about the Imperial Irrigation deal in public.

In 2010, and again last year, the Water Authority filed lawsuits against the Metropolitan Water District, claiming unfair pricing of its supplies to San Diego County. The 25 Metropolitan member agencies other than San Diego’s have been alarmed about the lawsuits, leading some of their managers to discuss with each other how they ought to respond. After learning about the discussions, the San Diego Water Authority recently complained to the court that a “secret society” had been formed to thwart its interests.

But Erie contends that the Water Authority’s motivation for the lawsuits is to recoup “staggering” costs that its deal with the Imperial Water District brought about. Desalination and water reclamation look to him like the latest excess in a quest for local water independence “at all costs.”

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


dpcowboy June 26, 2013 @ 3:40 p.m.

In 2005, I began the process of dealing with our water district, Padre Dam. Originally, the reason was to acquire a discounted rate for an agricultural permit for our 2 acres, where we were beginning a farm. This has led me to know far more about the unethical morass that the SD Water Authority and most of its districts have sunk into. Despite developing all of the property (only 1/3 was landscaped before), reducing the actual consumption of water in gallons, spending thousands on drought resistant plants and landscaping, our bill is 20% higher now, than in 2005. Padre Dam actually wanted to put in a water ski park with tow ropes on towers at Santee Lakes. Their Board of Directors believed that was a good use of our money! Now, I am planning a well, but the cost of a well includes permits and fees, paid to the county and the Water Authority for doing, well, nothing!!! The local water districts and the Water Authority are a sham, crooked, dirty, and liars of the nth degree. Anyone who works for them should be ashamed.


janemack June 29, 2013 @ 8:45 a.m.

Good article, I have printed it up for my HOA board in Oceana in Oceanside, CA. We were approached by the City of Oceanside to support this project by sending (their) letters to our elected officials on our letterhead to support funding for this water district consortium on recycled water">

I have tried to f/up with other HOAs in the area and with the City of Oceanside with a number of questions. Not much luck. If you have any interest on perhaps writing an article on this project, it could be timely. There are a number of references to this project online but it seems to be in the early stages and it is a bit difficult to get facts.

With water rates always going up, this is something that all Southern Californians should be dialed into, and of course we are not.

Thanks Joe. Jane


Joe Deegan June 29, 2013 @ 4:41 p.m.

You're right, Janemack ! What 10 North County districts are beginning to do independently with recycled water is a very hopeful sign. They're realizing it's a shame to send so much wastewater out to sea when it could be used to irrigate avocado and other crops. Looks like they won't need the imprimatur of the Water Authority to do it either.


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader