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Who controls what we drink? Corporate water comes to (and from) San Francisco
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I think that's the wrong way of coming at it."

The technological fix is one way the state's water crisis may slowly seep into private sector control, and a couple of examples show what can happen when private companies don't play nice with the public, how citizens constantly battle with state agencies to enforce regulations, and how the public process could and should be honored.

GET THE SALT OUT

In theory, California has plenty of water — its 700 miles of coastline border the giant reservoir known as the Pacific Ocean. But humans can't drink salt water — and some companies see a nice industrial niche in that dilemma. Build a plant that takes out the salt, and suddenly there's plenty for all.

Several small desalination facilities already exist throughout the state, mostly cleaning water reservoirs brined by agriculture. But another 30 desalination plants have been proposed for the coast as a way to deal with future water shortages.

One is in Carlsbad, near San Diego, where Poseidon Resources is constructing the only large-scale desalination plant that the state has permitted to date. It's a 10-year-old project that, so far, doesn't even have a pipe in the ground.

Despite Poseidon's ability to grease the wheels with local officials, the facility is controversial. It sits next to a fossil-fuel burning peaker power plant, and will be desalinating the power plant's discharge water, thus shielding its negative environmental impacts by claiming its the power plant that's sucking up seawater and damaging marine life — the desalination plant is just making use of the wasted water.

That argument doesn't sit well with Joe Geever of the Surfrider Foundation, who pointed out that part of the power plant is scheduled for a retrofit to air-cooling, and talk is of a potential state ban on using water for this type of cooling system. There are other more environmentally benign seawater extractions, he said, like drilling and capturing subsurface sources, that the desalination plant could have used.

Mostly, he contends, the plant subverts conservation. "Per capita consumption of water in San Diego is much higher than other places," he said. "In southern California we waste an enormous amount of water on growing grass. There's a lot to be saved."

Poseidon, a private company, is footing the bill for the plant's construction, but the financing scheme is predicated on a future increase in the cost of water. As Poseidon's Scott Maloni explained to the Guardian, the contract with the San Diego Water Authority states that the cost of desalinated water can never be more than the cost of imported water. It can, however, walk in lock-step with it — and by all accounts the price to pipe water to sunny southern California is going to increase. Maloni said his company was taking an initial loss but would start paying itself back as imported water costs increase. Eventually rates will be set halfway between the real cost of desalinated water and the higher cost of imported water.

What kinds of guarantees are there that this will happen? Nobody knows. "They'll say anything, but when it comes to showing you a contract, we've never seen anything," said Adam Scow of Food and Water Watch. "There's a lack of regulation with a private company controlling the water."

The plant now has no less than three lawsuits hanging over it, all filed with state agencies in charge of permitting and oversight — the Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission, and the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. All basically contend that the state didn't do enough to require Poseidon to implement the most environmentally sound technology that's least harmful to marine organisms, as required by state law.

Geever stresses that desalination is an energy-intensive way to get water.