By Natalie Jacobs
In the early 1990s, San Diego was experiencing drought conditions similar to those it faces today. At that time, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a water distribution center in Los Angeles, was essentially San Diego County’s only source of water. In 1991, MWD cut San Diego’s supply by 31 percent. With that, the San Diego business community started looking for other sources of water for the 3 million people and hundreds of acres of farmland in the region.
That’s where Israel enters the picture.
Starting in November 2015, a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif., built and operated by the Israeli company IDE Technologies, will produce 50 million gallons of water per day. The plant will provide 7-10 percent of the San Diego region’s needs.
Today, 90 percent of San Diego’s water is still piped in from northern California, sourced by the Colorado River and sold through MWD. Local reservoirs provide 5-10 percent of the water San Diego uses, depending on the amount of rainfall in a given year. There are also a handful of reclamation plants that treat wastewater for use in irrigating agriculture, parks, and golf courses.
“Ultimately,” says Robert Yamada, water resources manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, “the primary reason [for developing the Carlsbad desalination plant] is that we see desalination as a highly reliable part of the overall water supply portfolio. We’ve been planning on adding desalination, noted in our planning documents, since the early 2000s.”
The Carlsbad project has been in development in some form or another since 1998. Understanding that the water situation in San Diego County was unsustainable, the privately held seawater desalination company Poseidon Water, headquartered in Boston, conducted a feasibility study for the plant in 2000. They looked at options for both a plant that would meet only the needs of the city of Carlsbad, and one that would serve the entire region. Two years of discussions followed and, by 2002, agreements were made with Carlsbad and the county’s Water Authority to move forward with permitting activities, designs, and construction contracts for a large regional plant.
Since nothing like this had been done in the area, obtaining permits proved a challenge, and the process took 10 years. Finally, in 2012, the Water Authority entered into a 30-year performance-based purchase agreement with Poseidon Water. It stated, essentially, that if Poseidon builds the plant in Carlsbad and delivers 50 million gallons of potable desalinated water per day, the Water Authority will buy it at a fixed price until 2046 (the fixed price will increase with inflation, at a rate of about 2.5 percent per year).
Before embarking on the project, Yamada says, the Water Authority conducted a survey of San Diego County residents to “ascertain the public’s interest in paying more for a reliable water supply like desalination.” The result: 82 percent of respondents felt it was important to add desalination to the water supply and 58 percent supported a rate increase of $5 or more to support it.
Desalination is the process of taking the salt and minerals out of ocean water. Traditionally, the technology to do this has been very expensive and energy intensive, and consequently desalination hasn’t been widely viewed as a viable solution to the water problem in the U.S.
“It’s because of the perceived value of water,” says Mark Lambert, CEO of the Americas for Israel’s IDE Technologies.
“It’s taken a long time to really consider how water should be priced and valued,” he adds. “When you think about the economics of the value of water, you think of value differently.”
The Water Authority’s Yamada says the desalinated water will cost about twice as much as imported water, but based on the projected price increases of imported water, that price gap is expected to close out by the mid 2020s (as the cost of the imported water is expected to rise more quickly than the cost of the desalinated water).
Both IDE’s Lambert and Peter McLaggan, Poseidon vice president and lead for the Carlsbad project, underscore that the goal of the desalination plant is to lower the future cost of water and ultimately make San Diego County water independent.
“It’s part of a diversified water supply portfolio where the desalination component is your one truly drought-proof component,” McLaggan says.
While desalination is just getting started in the U.S., the process has proven a reliable source of water for Europe, Australia, and the Middle East for years. Around the time that Poseidon started looking to southern California for its next desalination project, Israel began pumping water from the Mediterranean through its first desalination plant in Ashkelon, a seaside town just north of the Gaza Strip. IDE Technologies built and operates the plant. Commissioned in 2005, it was the world’s largest and most advanced desalination plants at the time, producing 86 million gallons of water per day.
Today, IDE has completed two other projects in Israel-one in Hadera, producing 96 million gallons per day, and one in Sorek, which produces an enormous 120 million gallons per day. With those three plants in operation, Israel now gets more than 50 percent of its water from the Mediterranean, whereas 12 years ago no water was sourced from there.
“This is quite a change that has strengthened the country tremendously,” says McLaggan, who visited the Israeli plants during the design phase of the Carlsbad project. “They are no longer relying on their neighbors, they are self-sufficient at least for half of their water.”
Both water executives, however, caution that desalination alone isn’t a magic bullet for water independence.
“It’s a mixed part of the whole bag,” IDE’s Lambert says. “But the goal is for independence from imported water. And the ocean is the largest reservoir on the planet.”
Poseidon hired IDE to build the Carlsbad plant with similar specs to the ones IDE completed in Israel, because of the Carlsbad plant’s high-production needs.
“In Carlsbad,” McLaggan explains, “we’re the fourth generation of that series [of IDE’s desalination plants in Israel] so we feel very confident that with IDE’s expertise we’re building a plant using proven technology at a new location. And we get the benefits of the innovation and lessons learned over [IDE’s] many years of doing this sort of thing.”
In addition to the three plants in Israel, IDE has completed 400 desalination projects throughout the world since opening up shop in the mid 1960s.
Poseidon has built another desalination plant in Tampa Bay, Fla., which produces 25 million gallons per day. The company is also in talks with Texas water authorities to get a plant going there. But for now, once the Carlsbad project is up and running, it will be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere.
“We’re only going to satisfy seven percent of the regional demand,” McLaggan says. “It’s not [actually big]. In terms of the local needs, it sounds like a small number. But in terms of the scale at which this has been done elsewhere in the U.S., it is considerably larger.”
As the developer, Poseidon bears the cost of the construction, financed through private equity investment and private activity bonds. That cost, $922 million plus interest, will be recouped as the Water Authority buys water through the lifespan of their contract. Aside from the annual water purchases, the Water Authority is responsible for coming up with $80 million to create a 10-mile pipeline from the plant to the existing piping system. Most of the pipes that have been pumping the water from northern California out to San Diego faucets were built in the 1960s and ’70s. The youngest pipe was laid in 1985. The desalinated water from Carlsbad will be injected into those existing pathways through the new pipe.
“If you can imagine,” McLaggan explains, “there are two rivers underneath San Diego County that nobody ever sees. There’s about 700 million gallons of water piped into the County every day, just to meet the needs of the 3 million residents here.”