Editorial: In Celebration of Water: Carlsbad Desal Plant Opens

San Diego Union Tribune

Carlsbad, CA (December 12, 2015) - It’s been there all along, the largest reservoir in the world, lapping at our shore but unavailable through drought after drought. Finally, on Monday, politicians and government officials, business leaders and residents will gather in Carlsbad to dedicate a $1 billion plant and pipeline connecting the Pacific Ocean to the San Diego County drinking water network. It is in many ways a remarkable and historic achievement. But it is hardly the end of the search for reliable, sustainable, drought-proof sources of affordable water for the future.

At its core, the Carlsbad Desalination Project borrows from a process that dates to the sailors of ancient Greece and that has been in use for decades at some 21,000 desal plants in more than 120 countries from Europe to the Middle East to Asia. It was even tried briefly here more than half a century ago when the Navy built a small desalination plant at the tip of Point Loma in 1962, only to have it taken apart two years later and shipped to the Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after dictator Fidel Castro cut off the base water supply.

The Carlsbad plant is this nation’s largest, capable of producing 50 million gallons of potable water every day, and the most technologically advanced. Its journey from a naively hopeful proposal by Poseidon Resources in December 2001 to flowing water this month was a tortuous 14-year slog of battles between Carlsbad and the San Diego County Water Authority, battles between Poseidon and the water authority, lawsuits galore by environmental groups, and regulatory hoop after regulatory hoop. It could have died at several points along the way.

But everyone persevered and those difficulties will likely get scant mention at Monday’s celebratory dedication. That’s fine, because there is much work still to be done to secure the region’s water future and it will require a unified partnership of political, governmental, business and citizen efforts to achieve.

Just what does “reliable, sustainable, drought-proof sources of affordable water” mean?

It means continuing the effort to reduce this county’s dependence on the region’s water wholesaler, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, from 95 percent of our water in 1991 to 57 percent today to a hoped-for 18 percent by 2035. It probably means at least one more desalination plant — and one is in the early study stage at the SDCWA. It means successful development of water purification projects around the county that convert wastewater into drinking water. It means far greater use of recycled water. It means better management and development of groundwater. And it means even more consumer conservation.

All that is just at the local level. At the state level, it means resolution of the decades-long conflict over restoration of the endangered Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, better management of rivers and groundwater and development of greater storage capacity. And, of course, better agricultural management. Do we really want, for example, to continue using huge quantities of cheap Colorado River water to grow water-intensive alfalfa in Imperial County that is then shipped to China?

All of that is necessary, along with a great public willingness to pay for it.

Monday is for celebrating the new desalination plant. Sincere congratulations. On Tuesday, it’s back to work.