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Thursday, October 20,2011

The Zetas and the Surfriders

By Paul Danish
photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

Cities provide a lot of services, but only four of them are truly vital: Water, sewer, police and fire. (Add gas and electricity to the list in towns with municipal utilities.)

Of the big four, water is hands down the most vital. If deprived of water, human beings will be on the fast track to the river Styx within three days, which alone is sufficient to make water the most vital urban service. Moreover, without water, a city’s sewage service will collapse and its ability to fight fires will be degraded to close to zero. When it comes to vital urban services, water is first among equals.

That being the case, one would suppose that just about the last thing a city would like to see located in a foreign country is its water supply, especially if the government of that country was showing signs of losing control of parts of it to armed gangs and private militias.

But four water utilities that supply San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas and southern California are seriously thinking about building a major water desalination plant in Mexico instead of the United States.

The utilities commissioned a study of the feasibility of building a 50-million-gallon-a-day (300 acre feet) desalination plant, which could supply enough water for 100,000 people, in Mexico at Rosarito, south of San Diego. The study found no show-stoppers, and the utilities have commissioned a second study, which will include costs. Negotiations with the Mexican government are also under way. What’s more, a private company is considering building a 100-million-gallon-a-day plant in the same area and selling its output to the gringos.

Why would American utilities even consider such a course, let alone pursue it? Why, indeed.

About 10 years ago a company called Poseidon Resources set out to build a 50-million-gallon-a-day desalination plant at Carlsbad, Calif., near San Diego. A decade of studies, hearings and litigation ensued before the company finally won approval from the California state regulators. There may well be further challenges.

The project’s main nemesis has been an organization named the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group founded by Malibu surfers in 1984 that focuses on protecting beaches and marine water quality. Today it has 50,000 members and 80 chapters worldwide. In addition to the Carlsbad project, it opposes proposed desalination plants in Huntington Beach and Monterey.

The Surfrider Foundation’s main objection to the projects is that their intake pipes can suck in fish eggs and that they discharge concentrated salt brines that can also damage marine life into the ocean. The foundation also objects to the high-energy demands of desalination processes, presumably because the energy would come from burning fossil fuels.

All three objections seem pretty weak. The brine and fish egg problems do not seem beyond the ability of civil and process engineering to fashion solutions. As for the energy issue — use wind, solar or nuclear. Of course, that might require the California greens who are fighting wind and solar power plants in the Mojave Desert and the power lines to connect them to the grid to lighten up.

Shortly after he became energy secretary, Nobel laureate Steven Chu gave an interview in which he pointed to climate models that predicted global warming could result in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of most of California’s water, losing 90 percent of their snowpack by the end of the century. If Chu is right, the state of California would be looking at an annual water shortfall amounting to 35 million or 40 million acre feet at a minimum.

(By way of comparison, California’s annual water consumption is around 70 million acre feet. Its draw from the Colorado River comes to six or seven million acre feet.)

It took California a hundred years to put in place its current water infrastructure. Assuming Chu is right, it needs to start building the successor system now, and central to the successor system is a massive commitment to desalination and waste-water recycling (which to a large extent will use desalination technology).

Viewed from this perspective, the Surfrider Foundation is being irresponsible, or perhaps more charitably, self-absorbed beyond words.

Which raises a couple of questions: 1) Are environmental organizations like the Surfrider Foundation capable of distinguishing between what is important and what isn’t? Hint: Ensuring an adequate water supply for 38 million people in the face of impending climate change is more important than the welfare of a few square miles of fish eggs, just as the commercialization of solar and wind energy is more important than a few square miles of desert tortoise habitat.

2) If the country has so hamstrung itself with regulatory process and tolerance for greens gaming the system that public agencies responsible for the water supply think that contending with the Zetas in Mexico is a more attractive option than contending with the Surfrider Foundation in California, are we facing an environmental crisis of existential proportions — or a governance crisis of existential proportions?

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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WOW you are incredibly ignorant. You should do a little bit more reasearch before writing your articles.

Desalination plants not only affect fish eggs but also larger marine species such as whales, dolphins, seals and sharks essentially to the equilibrium of the marine ecosystem.

California is one of the largest consumers of water in the entire U.S. If we minimized our usage (say if we didnt have enourmous grass lawns in a desert like climate that needed tremendous amounts of water to iirigate them) we would be able to cut our water needs significantly.

Wastewater recycling is a perfectly good alternative to a desalination plant even if it used desal technology and would't have an impact on marin wildlife.

Lastly the Zetas are not even in the Baja area. You should do some basic research. 



The essential problem is that people don't understand "scale."  The amount of water drawn in through intake pipes for desalination is about 100 million gallons per day.  Sounds like a lot of water until you consider the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.  It's the equivilant of the amount of water you would wring out of your swimsuit after a dip in one of the Great Lakes. 

The goal of many environmental extremists is not to "save the planet" but to stop any and all infrastructure improvements, which kills jobs, kills economic growth, harms our quality of life and forces people to move, which is their true motivation.

By the way, despite what Manuela claims, desal does not affect whales, dolphins, seals or sharks anymore than your vaccuum cleaner affects lions, tigers and bears (oh my!).



This article couldn't be more misleading. The Surfrider Foundation, and many other community groups, are not strictly "anti-desal." In fact, our position is that ocean desalination should be an option of last resort when preferable alternatives for meeting the balance of water demand and supply have been fully exhausted. And in those circumstances, it must be located and employ available designs and technologies to minimize the mortality of marine life. Unfortunately, that is not what is currently being proposed.

Surfrider Foundation is a very active advocate for alternative supply options that are both economically preferable as well as environmentally beneficial. We support a suite of changes to the way water is managed -- from reforming our current unsustainable supply system to re-thinking how we use water, how we "manage" rainwater and how we dispose of our wastewater in the ocean. We actively support what is often called "green infrastructure" projects like networks of treatment wetlands, Low Impact Development, rainwater harvesting (and other landscape practices), and purification and re-use of wastewater. This suite of reforms result in creating a sustainable and local water supply portfolio while reducing costs, and starting to resolve intractable problems like water pollution, loss of critical coastal habitat, lowering the "embedded energy" in water management -- and a host of other benefits.

So to answer the first question: like everyone, our members are concerned about potential water scarcity. We simply believe there are right ways and wrong ways to deal with that problem. Certainly the "silver bullet" solution of ocean desal, that demands far more energy than every other alternative, shouldn't be the first step in resolving threats to water supply from "impending climate change." Integrated water management not only provides all the benefits listed above, but is critical to climate change adaptation.

In response to your second question: we are dealing with a governance problem. Over the past century or so, our water managment system has been delegated to multiple government agencies with discreet legislative mandates that often conflict. That's nobody's fault, creating expertise in narrowly defined goals seemed like a good idea at the time. But in hindsight, integrating flood control, water supply, groundwater management, wastewater treatment, as well as wildlife and habitat restoration will result in more attractive communities, get the most "bang for the buck" from our efforts to resolve what appears like a water scarcity problem, and resolve multiple intractable environmental challenges.

Contrary to the opinion of the author, we believe our policy and advocacy for integrated water management is a much more "responsible" approach then maintaining a system that effectively forces freshwater off the land, and then responds to shortages by pumping the water back out of the ocean to remove the salt -- at enormous costs to ratepayers and the environment.

Really, the name calling and finger pointing isn't the least bit productive. We are working very hard to resolve very difficult problems. You should "hear us out" before you "call us out."