Capable of producing 50 million gallons of fresh water daily, the plant can supply nearly 10 percent of the county’s water use.
Water conservation, recycling, reservoir and ground water storage are all used extensively in the state. But seawater desalination, the most abundant potential source, has until now remained a minor part of the water supply puzzle. If this new plant in Carlsbad performs according to expectations, that could change.
More than 600 dignitaries gathered at the site overlooking the Pacific Ocean to mark the occasion. Tributes came from elected officials such as Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins of San Diego. She emphasized the plant’s bipartisan support, including from GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, in whose district the plant is located.
“We’ve now established a model, not just for San Diego County, but for other plants, up and down the coastline, so that we can make sure California’s future is bright, and that we have the water we need,” Atkins said.
Along with many other elected officials, labor unions and business leaders supported the Carlsbad plant. Capable of producing 50 million gallons of fresh water daily, the plant can supply nearly 10 percent of the county’s water use. It uses a technology called reverse osmosis that separates salt from water by forcing filtered seawater through specially constructed membranes.
Boston-based Poseidon Water owns and operates the plant, which it built for $1 billion. The San Diego County Water Authority, the region’s main water importer, is buying the water under a 30-year purchase agreement. The plant’s official opening, tied to completion of performance standards, is expected in days.
Called the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, it is named for the late Carlsbad civic leader and mayor, a major supporter of the project and former Water Authority chairman.
However the plant was opposed by some environmentalists, who say the water is too expensive and the desalination process harmful to the environment. Having failed to stop the Carlsbad plant, the environmentalists are trying to stop Poseidon’s next desalination project, planned for Huntington Beach in Orange County.
That project is being handled by Poseidon Vice President Peter MacLaggan, who also led Poseidon’s work on the Carlsbad plant. MacLaggan was on hand Monday for the dedication, a project he spent nearly 15 years developing.
Despite the drought, San Diego County doesn’t need the water right away. The Water Authority said earlier this year that it could supply 99 percent of the region’s needs, were it not for Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order mandating a 25 percent reduction in the state’s urban water use.
But the plant is no short-term hedge. It’s meant to be part of San Diego County’s drive toward greater control over its own water supply, a drive that had its genesis in another challenging drought, more than 25 years ago.
Unlike all other sources, the desalination plant can’t run out of water. And, water officials pointed out, it’s south of the major faults that could break incoming aqueducts and pipelines.
For MacLaggan, the Carlsbad plant is a personal dream fulfilled. An engineer/attorney who became fascinated with desalination early in his career, MacLaggan worked for a private engineering company, then for the Water Authority, and since 2000, for Poseidon Water.
A 1979 graduate of San Diego State University with a B.S. in civil engineering, MacLaggan said he got into the field after getting a 1978 internship with Fluid Systems. The San Diego company made the reverse osmosis membranes used by desalination plants in Mexico, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The technology was developed at General Atomics, which originally owned Fluid Systems and invented the technology.
MacLaggan became fascinated with reverse osmosis and the water industry in general.
“It was just one of those things in life that happens,” MacLaggan said. “Civil engineering is traffic, soils, water, wastewater, building structures, things like that. I didn’t know which one of those disciplines I was going to pursue. But I was hooked when I took this job on a career in water. I spent seven years in reverse osmosis when it was a fledgling industry, went onto the San Diego County Water Authority, and served in various capacities there for 12 years.”
While still at the Water Authority in the mid-90s, MacLaggan went back to school at night to become an attorney. After four years, he earned a law degree from the University of San Diego and became a member of the California Bar.
“We were pushing aggressively to implement water recycling projects, and the laws and regulations in California hadn’t been designed to accommodate that,” MacLaggan said. “They were really designed to get rid of sewage. We were spending a lot of our time in Sacramento, advocating for legislation and regulatory reform to allow us to recycle water.”
In 1997, MacLaggan left the Water Authority to work on his own as a water resources consultant. One of his clients was the Water Reuse Association, a consortium of public water agencies dedicated to water recycling. In 1999, he was hired by Poseidon to help them with permit application, and in 2000 MacLaggan joined the company full time for the Carlsbad desalination project.
“And I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
Years of controversy, hearings and environmentalist lawsuits finally ended after favorable decisions from regulatory agencies and courts allowed construction to begin in late 2012. This included hearings before the city of Carlsbad, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the California Coastal Commission, the State Lands Commission, and ultimately to the San Diego County Water Authority.
While opponents Surfrider Foundation and San Diego Coastkeeper failed to stop the plant, MacLaggan said they succeeded in making it better. The project includes environmental mitigation in San Diego Bay and a requirement that the plant’s electricity use be carbon neutral.
With all that done, MacLaggan said the plant’s imminent opening brings great satisfaction.
“This is just fantastic,” he said. “This is what we’ve been working for for 15 years, and this plant is going to change the way we look at water in California for decades to come … Nothing can make me happier than hearing those pumps running in the background.”
©2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.