Could seawater desalination come to Orange County?

SHAWN DEWANE, Board president at Mesa Consolidated Water District, which serves fresh water to the City of Costa Mesa, parts of Newport Beach and John Wayne Airport Seawater desalination has been discussed as a potential large scale water source since the days of Aristotle. This technology has proven itself effective over the pa


SHAWN DEWANE, Board president at Mesa Consolidated Water District, which serves fresh water to the City of Costa Mesa, parts of Newport Beach and John Wayne Airport

Seawater desalination has been discussed as a potential large scale water source since the days of Aristotle. This technology has proven itself effective over the past 20 years in applications like naval and cruise ships and in areas of the world where fresh water is scarce like Australia, Algeria and other countries

The cost of importing water into Southern California has risen dramatically and will continue to rise for years to come. Currently, seawater desalination is more expensive than imported water. But the application of new technologies has reduced the cost of desalination by more than half. The water industry is still waiting for the break-even point where desalinated water becomes less expensive than imported water. That time is approaching. More than a dozen desalination plants are scheduled to be operational along California’s coastline over the next decade, including at least two in Orange County.

Poseidon Resources, a private water infrastructure developer, has already broken ground in San Diego County on a 50-million-gallon-per-day (MGD) seawater desalination facility that is expected to be operational in about two years. That company has been working for the past 10 years to develop a similar desalination facility in Huntington Beach to service Orange County. Poseidon’s Huntington Beach project has every local permit approval and is now focused on securing the remaining state permits needed to start construction.

I have heard many of the project’s detractors talk about Poseidon’s effort to build a desalination facility in Tampa Bay. They point to this 10-year old project as a failure, claiming that the project demonstrates that we should not trust Poseidon to build a similar desalination plant in Orange County.

I was recently in Tampa Bay on personal business and investigated this project for myself. I toured the plant and talked to the officials in charge. My interest stems from my responsibility as an elected officer and the Mesa Consolidated Water District’s interest in purchasing water from Poseidon’s Huntington Beach project.

What I learned was eye-opening and in stark contrast to the perception created by Poseidon’s critics. In 1999, Tampa Bay Water selected Poseidon Resources after a competitive bid process to develop, construct and operate a 25 MGD seawater desalination plant.

Construction began on schedule in May 2001, and then soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and related financial market collapse, the engineering and construction contractor involved in the project declared bankruptcy. The project moved forward under Poseidon’s management until May 2002 when Tampa Bay Water decided to exercise its right in the development agreement to buy out Poseidon prior to project completion. As it was explained to me, Tampa Bay Water officials thought that they could avoid development risk and save money by assuming ownership and publicly financing the project. When they exercised that right and bought Poseidon out, Tampa Bay Water engineers announced the project was on time (30 percent complete) and on budget. This history has been well documented in newspaper reports and public records.

Tampa Bay Water does not claim Poseidon was to blame for the problems at the plant. The problems at the plant could not be anticipated and now that Tampa had bought out Poseidon, they now owned the problems as well. They also stated that Poseidon was never party to any litigation and was described as a good working partner. For the water industry and Poseidon this project provides a valuable history of lessons learned.

Public-private partnerships should work to shift risk to the private sector especially when public agencies have limited technical experience and scarce rate payer funded financing sources.

There are many issues that must be resolved prior to our water agency’s formal engagement with Poseidon, including the plant’s water quality, cost and final permitting. In this regard, Poseidon has a lot to prove. Nonetheless, we should all dedicate ourselves to an honest discussion based on the facts. In the end, factual evidence and sound science will decide the ultimate fate of Poseidon’s Huntington Beach desalination project.

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