Death by Drought: Can Poseidon Save LA?

GLOBAL WARMING LA - As the climate continues to warm, dealing with water shortages will be one of the most significant challenges California has come to face.

The National Resources Defense Council issued a recent study stating that, in all the country, Los Angeles will be hit the hardest by increasing drought conditions. Utilities along with food prices are expected to rise astronomically.

Strain in the financial underpinnings of agribusiness could have a disastrous rippling effect throughout the entire economy. 

Fortunately efforts from government and the private sector are seeking to combat a rising demand for water. There are a multitude of ideas about how to bring fresh water into the region, some such as towing icebergs or pipelining water from the Mississippi River, verge on the ludicrous. Questions of economic feasibility in sustainable water programs and their individual effects on the environment all factor in to deciding what water route California ought to take. 

One company, Poseidon, believes it has found a marketable solution to solving California’s water crisis by transforming seawater into fresh water.  Through a process known as ocean desalinization, Poseidon’s facilities pressurize seawater using tiny filters to rid the water of salt. A series of chemicals are then added to the end product ensuring it meets water quality standards. 

Although there are members of the scientific community who are less sure chemicals from this water are healthy for consumption, plans to build a several desalinization plants are already underway. 

Construction on California’s first desalinization plant will begin this year in Carlsbad with another plant expected in Huntington Beach. 

Funded completely by the private sector, investors such General Electric and Citi Group’s sustainable-investment unit view ocean water as a potentially lucrative market. An estimated $1 billion dollars has poured into Poseidon’s Carlsbad facility. 

Buyers for this water have already been secured.  Nine local districts around the Carlsbad and San Diego area have agreed to 30-year contracts with Poseidon. While it is certain that the plant will be able to produce 7% of the areas water needs, critics worry that the energy intensive nature of ocean desalinization’s energy will end up costing the public more than the water is worth. 

The current price of water in the Carlsbad region is $700 dollars per acre-foot, Poseidon plans to sell its water for $950 per acre-foot, costing the average citizen $6 per month more in utilities. This does not seem like a gigantic price to pay for a resource as precious as water, however there is doubt about how much the water will actually cost once the plant is complete. Others harbor suspicion over the private sector’s debut into American water supply. 

A poor track record in facility construction has led several third party investigators to question whether Poseidon can deliver on is $950 promise, or if methods such as water conservation would provide taxpayers more bang for their buck. 

Beginning in 2003, Poseidon began building its largest desalinization plant near Tampa, Florida. The project was riddled with design flaws and, the engineering firm tasked with designing the plant had serious financial issues holding up the plant’s completion until 2007. Tampa’s plant now produces water for an average of $1,800 per acre-foot, twice as expensive as the Carlsbad project is projected to produce. Grossly over-budget and underperforming, Tampa Bay’s plant provided a surfeit of examples on how not to create desalinization plants. 

California should be worried about Poseidon’s overzealous estimates. While the company claims to have learned vital lessons from Tampa, a study by “Residents for Responsible Desalation” estimated it would take $2,000 to $3,000 per acre-foot to purify water in Southern California. The Carlsbad plant is exponentially bigger than Tampa, providing terrifically larger room for infrastructural error. 

Another major concern is that water in California is thirty degrees colder and contains more salt than that of Tampa. The treatment process for water in Carlsbad will be much more energy-intensive than in Florida. Poseidon claims that new feats in technology have cut costs in its desalinization process, however many scientists are skeptical whether it is possible to process water at $950 per acre-foot. 

The clock is ticking for Southern California cities like Los Angeles and Carlsbad, who currently depend on the Colorado River for the majority of their water. With Global warming playing an ever-increasing role in reducing the Colorado River’s flow, tactful solutions to acquiring new water sources is forefront in the minds of both business and government. Environmentalists are torn on the issue of Poseidon’s, Carlsbad desalinization plant. 

On one hand, plants of this sort would reduce dependence on fresh water streams, and provide the agriculture sector with fresh water. While on the other hand, reliance on ocean water produces huge amounts of CO2, leaving cost efficient water techniques such as conservation and recycling underutilized. 

It is not as if we can choose only one water management program, there is no silver bullet to California’s water quandary. We should applaud the private sector for its farsighted sustainable investments such as Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant, while at the same time remembering simpler solutions like water conservation are equally viable.




NRDC report


Health effects of desalinization 


Study on economic efficiency of Poseidon   


(Eric Smith is student at Loyola Marymount University and a writer-researcher intern at CityWatch.)






Vol 11 Issue 22

Pub: Mar 15, 2013