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The plant would be a public/private operation, with the private part being Poseidon Resources, a Connecticut company that built the nation's largest desalination plant, in Tampa Bay, Florida, now in its shakedown stage and due to go full-tilt in a couple of months. The Huntington Beach plant could open in 2006, if the regulatory hoops and commissions are successfully navigated, according to Poseidon Vice President Billy Owens, who is overseeing development of the plant.
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Private ownership of water distribution has received a deservedly bad rap in recent years, with companies such as Enron acquiring water rights in Third World countries and gouging the citizenry. Owens was quick to point out the distinctions here.
"We're not proposing privatization, where in places like Venezuela and Argentina they've taken municipal systems and sold them into private hands," he said. "We're looking for a public/private partnership. One thing public agencies don't typically do is take risks. It's not in their charter or in their culture. So we see our role as facilitating a transition."
That means Poseidon assumes the cost, risk and bother of building the plant and ideally makes their tidy profit from it for a while, after which public agencies can buy it. Owens estimates it should cost $170 million to build the plant.
Here's why desalination is only a qualified win-win: it's an energy-intensive process, and the resulting water isn't cheap. But there are mitigations to those qualifications. Governor Gray Davis, in his infinite wisdom, now has California running at a costly energy surplus, and that power has to be used for something; it might as well be clean water.
Meanwhile, the cost of the de-salted water—$800 an acre-foot—is nearly twice the rate we currently pay for our piped-in water. But, biologist Kelly says, if you factor in the environmental costs of that water, it makes the seawater more appealing. With new regulations on arsenic and other contaminants taking effect, and with new worries about the rocket fuel that has been leeching into the Colorado, the sea-derived water may soon look like a bargain.
When people think about Huntington Beach, they think about surfing, but only after they think about what a toilet the waters have become. According to Owens, though, the plant will get its water from deep down a mile out, where their testing has shown it's cleaner than our current drinking water sources. Kelly also points out that reverse osmosis is so effective that you could get good drinking water out of straight wastewater, not that I'd wait in line for a glass.
Then there's the problem of production. The HB plant's yield of 50 million gallons per day is a whole lot of water, but only 8 percent of what Orange County sends down the drain every day. It can help make up for what we're losing from the Colorado and allow our drought-tapped groundwater a bit of replenishing time. Projected future droughts should result in even less of the river water we use to make the electricity we use to make drinking water, so desalination doesn't look like a permanent solution.
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Though the technology has only recently improved, desalination has been around for decades. The Federal Government built a plant in San Diego in the early 1960s but never did the public much good because it was moved to the Marine base at Guantanamo, Cuba, in 1964 after Fidel Castro shut off the water supply following our Bay of Pigs incursion.
You can't help but wonder that if we spent our national will and money on infrastructure and technologies that help people, instead of those that make them bleed, maybe we wouldn't be in this water fix today.