12 Jul 2016

Academics meet reality -- a desalination example

I've been following the policies and technologies applied to desalinated water supplies for some years. In general, I approve of the technology, but not as a replacement for good water management.*

I recently wrote two papers on desalinated water. The first [pdf] describes how desalination can help good policy but not fix bad policy. In the second [pdf], I go over the political reasons for favoring "economically inefficient" desalination. In its discussion of Poseidon's $900 million Claude “Bud” Lewis desalination near San Diego, I wrote:
Desalination, in contrast, allows current behavior (and growth) to occur at a small cost to the average customer. It also gives local leaders greater security in their frequent negotiations with Met and complications from interdependency (Yousef, 2004).

What about the plant’s climate change impact? The plant will emit 61,000 tons of CO2e annually (Voutchkov, 2008)...

The only relevant fact from these calculations arrives as an afterthought: Voutchkov (2008) assumes the plant will be carbon neutral because 47,000 tons of its emissions will be offset by a reduction in energy-intensive water imports from Met. Such a reduction makes no sense when regional plans promise a 30 percent increase in population by 2035 (RWMG, 2013), but perhaps Voutchkov, as Senior Vice President at Poseidon LLC until 2009, did not want to look too closely at tradeoffs. Politicians in the region have the same habit of emphasizing benefits over costs when it comes to common pool water (Zetland, 2009).
When I wrote that (an earlier draft dates to Jan 2015), I thought I was pretty clever to spot the bait and switch of "carbon neutral" for taking less water from Met, except that Met's water would be used by SDCWA (or another member agency). It would NOT be left in the Sacramento Delta or -- heavens forbid -- in the Colorado River.

I didn't even blog on this "point," so I was both surprised and pleased to see that others had noticed the same thing. In this 2 June 2016 press release, CoastKeeper says:
Coastkeeper also revealed that Poseidon has failed to acquire the greenhouse gas offsets required for its Coastal Commission Permit.
If you click through, you get a 26 May 2015 letter [pdf] from the California Coastal Commission notifying Poseidon that they have failed to offset their carbon emissions by reducing water imports from Met!

I'm curious to see what happens next.

Bottom Line: I'm not sure if my analysis is causal or correlated, but it's good to see common sense water policy.

* Full disclosure: I have consulted and recommended for desalination in Monterey but against in San Diego. I am also an advisor to the Aquiva Foundation, which uses desalination to supply water in poorer places.

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