It is no secret that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant when it was proposed, and I still wasn’t completely on board when the plant began operations in 2015, or even when I was elected to the Carlsbad City Council in 2016.
But time has given me perspective, and I recognize now that the value that the Carlsbad Desalination Plant provides our region is undeniable.
We are now celebrating the plant’s fifth anniversary since operations began. In that time, I’ve seen firsthand how the Carlsbad Desalination Plant benefits our city and the entire San Diego region, given it has produced more than 65 billion gallons of high-quality drinking water. To put that in perspective, that is enough water to fill the Rose Bowl in Pasadena all the way to its brim nearly 200 times!
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is the largest, most technologically advanced, and energy-efficient seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It provides 50 million gallons of high-quality, fresh drinking water to 400,000 San Diego County residents each day.
Importantly, this water supply is 100% locally controlled, meaning it does not have to be imported from northern California or the Colorado River, and it is drought-proof, so it does not rely on rainfall or snowpack. This is critical, given the ever-increasing threat of extreme weather events due to climate change.
Beyond its core function of supplying our region with water, I’ve ultimately been impressed with the efforts that plant operator Poseidon Water has made to mitigate environmental impacts from the plant. Just this year, Poseidon completed the installation of a new state-of-the-art seawater intake system that made it the most environmentally sensitive desalination plant in the world.
Poseidon furthered its commitment to protect and preserve San Diego’s coastal environment by assuming stewardship of Carlsbad’s beloved Agua Hedionda Lagoon. Poseidon has taken responsibility for ensuring the 400-acre lagoon continues to realize the life-sustaining benefits of an open connection to the Pacific Ocean through maintaining a consistent dredging and sand replenishment program. In fact, the dredging of the lagoon is scheduled to begin next month.
But these efforts pale in comparison to what the plant operators did in response to the initial COVID-19 shelter-at-home order last March. The dedicated plant operators and technicians recognized the critical nature of their work ensuring a safe and reliable water supply for San Diego County, and so chose to voluntarily shelter-in-place at the desal plant for three consecutive 21-day stretches. This committed response is a testament to both the operation and the team that the City of Carlsbad is proud to call partners in these unprecedented times.
Similarly, the plant operators proved this past summer how flexible and nimble the Carlsbad Desalination Plant can be for our region when they voluntarily reduced operations during peak hours to support statewide energy conservation efforts in the face of possible rolling blackouts. While the electricity provided to the plant accounts for less than 1% of the peak energy demand in the SDG&E service territory, Poseidon and the San Diego County Water Authority — which purchases and distributes the water produced at the plant — were committed to doing everything they could to help ensure water and electricity reliability for our communities.
This nexus of water and energy points to how the Carlsbad Desalination Plant holds a unique position at the heart of our region’s environmental security and climate resiliency strategy. As we move forward with local renewable energy generation projects — thereby creating local green jobs and strengthening our region’s economy — the locally produced, renewable energy can fuel the Carlsbad Desalination Plant. This opportunity for synergy means that San Diego County can be home to a 100% locally controlled desalination plant run on 100% locally generated, renewable energy. Now that’s sustainability!
Our future health and well-being, local economy, and environmental security depend on a reliable and sustainable water supply. Desalination is locally produced and controlled, drought-proof, and proven to work. Desalination effectively diversifies water supplies, reduces reliance on imported water sources, and when fueled by locally produced renewable energy, will achieve a renewable desalination plant that ensures our water security.
Given all of this, and how essential water is to human security and economic security more generally, it’s clearer than ever that desalination must be assessed on its capabilities and widely embraced.
In light of these uncertain times, with concern over climate change and more frequent and more severe weather events, it is more important than ever to invest in a secure water future for Californians. After five years, even this skeptic has been convinced that the Carlsbad Desalination Plant should serve as a model for what is possible elsewhere.
This significant achievement in Carlsbad paves the way for a secure and sustainable future for our cities, our businesses, and our neighborhoods. By making similar investments throughout the state, local communities and the California economy will be better prepared for direct and indirect impacts of global climate change.
Cori Schumacher is a member of the Carlsbad City Council and a championship surfer.