Carlsbad Desal: Construction Progresses, But Critics Remain Skeptical

Construction is moving forward in Carlsbad, Calif., on the?nation?s largest ocean desalination plant. The $1 billion project plans to provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day for San Diego County when it opens in 2016.

But desalination remains a divisive topic for both financial and environmental reasons. California is mired in its third year of drought, and desalination technology is becoming more efficient as 15 desalination projects are proposed along the California coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is considered a test case for these projects. For it to succeed, it will need to deliver high-quality drinking water at the price promised ? and not cause unexpected impacts to the environment such as fish die-offs.

Many critics consider the plant a costly mistake. Desalinated water typically costs about double that of water obtained from building a new reservoir or recycling wastewater, according to a 2013 study from the California Department of Water Resources. The plant also uses an enormous amount of energy ? about 38 megawatts, enough to power 28,500 homes ? to remove the salt from the water.

However, supporters point out that San Diego County receives only 10 in. of rain a year and has very little groundwater. They argue the high price is worth it to help the region rely less on water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, both of which are overdrawn. The San Diego County Water Authority signed a 30-year contract with Poseidon Water, the Boston firm building the plant. The authority agreed to buy at least 48,000 acre-ft of desalinated water a year for between $2,014 and $2,257 an acre-ft.

Some information contained in this news update came from a report released by the U.S. Water Alliance on June 11.

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