Unpacking Poseidon’s latest Propaganda Blitz with Debbie Cook. Part 1: The CNN Puff Piece.

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CNN’s Rachel Crane examines water before and after Poseidon’s magic.

Since being ordered by the Coastal Commission to conduct a serious, credible study on the “feasibility” of using more expensive but less destructive underground “infiltration galleries” in their proposed Huntington Beach desal plant [breathe here…] Connecticut-based corporation Poseidon Inc. has been on an unmistakable Propaganda Blitz.  Latching onto the current drought (in this natural desert in which we dwell) to dishonestly pass themselves off as the inevitable solution, they’ve brought us in rapid succession a CNN Puff Piece on their Carlsbad project, a Jury-Rigged Grand Jury Report, and – coming up soon – an OCWD-funded “study” to be produced by the same folks who gave them the glowing thumbs up in Carlsbad.

In this article we’ll look at the CNN piece, a two-and-a-half-minute segment (from a larger gee-whiz special called “City of Tomorrow“) in which a wide-eyed young reportress marvels at Poseidon’s new Carlsbad facility (coming online 2016) and chats with a Poseidon flack and a supportive local water official.   The company loves this segment – they immediately sent a copy to everyone whose e-mail they could find (thanks Inge) and spokesman Brian Lochrie has been bringing it to water board meetings and, rather than saying anything, just making everybody watch it.

Some telltale signs of lack of objectivity and critical thinking in the piece just leap out at the thinking layman – no plant critics are featured;  a couple of environmental concerns are fleetingly mentioned and immediately brushed aside by the Poseidon flack.  But I knew there were bound to be some errors, omissions and distortions that would sneak right past me, so I invited longtime Poseidon foe and former HB mayor Debbie Cook (left) over to HB’s swell Sweetelle Cafe to watch it with me.

Now, SOME Poseidon critics allow as to how desalination might be the way to go some time in the next couple decades, to add to our water “portfolio” – just not with this crooked and irresponsible Connecticut company, and particularly not the subsidized, polluting, obsolete plan it has for Surf City.  But the harshly realistic Cook sees NO place for desal in a sane workable water future for southern California, for reasons I’ll let her explain later.  Short version – forget the environment, there’s just no way desal can ever pencil out with the crippling and GROWING energy costs it requires, AND PLUS we don’t need it.

Here is the CNN piece, followed by our mordant commentary.  You could watch the whole thing and then read on, or hit pause every few seconds like we did and hear the truth:

[Rachel Crane saunters up the coastline, hands in pockets:  “With Southern California experiencing one of the worst droughts in the state’s history, access to fresh water has never been more important, or more difficult.  Here in Southern California, the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere is being constructed…”]

“Wait.  Hit pause.  The Carlsbad plant is NOT the largest desal plant in the Western Hemisphere.  That would be the Yuma Desalter, a 72,000 acre-foot built by California’s MWD (Metropolitan Water District) back in 1992 to desalinate water from the Colorado River.  It operated at 1/3 capacity for six months until other less expensive solutions opened up (for treaty compliance with Mexico) but we’ve still spent millions on it since.  I wrote about it in my Oil Drum piece, ‘Desalination:  Unlocking Lesson’s from Yesterday’s Solution.‘”

Right here, you really should go read Debbie’s seminal and devastating 2011 article, it’s not too long, and it’s infuriating.  Click this link, which opens a new window, and then come back.  I’ll be waiting for you right here.

You’re back? I hope you did read Debbie’s article, you learned a lot if you did.  For example, you learned how Australia was brought to its knees a few years ago by the unexpected staggering costs of the desal industry they had embraced during a drought.  You learned how their water rates QUADRUPLED, how the number of poor Australians needing assistance with their water bills skyrocketed, how two of the six plants were shuttered [now it’s four by the way], how the Labor government associated with desal was brought down, and how all was saved by the rains coming back, as they always do.

Anyways, CNN was wrong about “the largest desal plant in the western hemisphere” – a quibble perhaps but they are not off to a good start!  Let’s get back to them:

[“…It will soon take water from the ocean, and create fifty million gallons of fresh water a day!” 

[Bob Yamada (SD water guy who has drunk the koolaid): “California’s in a serious drought right now, and ANY new water supplies are important to the region.”

 [Peter McLaggan, from Poseidon:  “We have a $190 million economy in this region, that’s dependent on water…”]

“Wait, pause right here.  Why are they showing pictures of strawberry fields?  Strawberries are not going to be irrigated with desalinated water, most crops won’t be, there’ll be too much boron in the water, it damages many plants.   (Boron may not be too good for human male fertility either, but we don’t have enough studies.)  Anyway most California farmers don’t use expensive water, they use subsidized water.”

Burning excess, subsidized rice in California’s agricultural belt wastes a lot of our water and energy, but at least it helps keep down the peasants in Vietnam and Haiti, and makes beaucoup bucks for our Big Ag companies!

This is a good place to point out that the real root of California’s water shortage is our stupid agricultural policies – we export a HUGE percentage of our water in the form of HAY, to China and the Middle East.  The energy and water costs of big alfalfa and rice farmers – two crops that were never meant to be grown in a natural desert like this which has always experienced cycles of drought and rainfall – are subsidized by us taxpayers in policies that make no sense now if they ever did, but are political cluster bombs to the touch.  Meanwhile we city dwellers and suburbanites strive to conserve, which is well and good, but the real problem is our agricultural policy.

Okay, back to CNN –

[Poseidon’s McLaggan:  “…the question you need to consider is, what’s the cost of NOT having enough water?”]

“NO, that is NOT the question we need to consider.  The question is, Why do we WASTE so much water?  And also, How much do we REALLY need?”  It wasn’t hard to look around at that moment and find an example of water waste – it was right outside the window of the cafe, the grassy divider running between the sidewalk along Warner and the shopping center – why did it need to be contoured the way it is, as a long mound? [see below] Even ignoring whether we really need a long green grassy divider there, its elevated shape causes all the water spent on it to flow right off instead of soaking in, AND that also helps degrade the concrete and asphalt.  Multiply that by 10,000 or 100,000 throughout Orange County and you got some major waste:

Although we deplore Orange County’s water boards, the (redundant) MWDOC and OCWD, for being stacked with bought-off Poseidon shills, some of whom shouldn’t legally even be voting on the boards, these agencies have also done some very good things addressing waste.  Our award-winning Groundwater Replenishment System is to boast of, and we are currently expanding that, but we could do even more.  And meanwhile homeowners can get nice rebates for xeriscaping their yards with drought-tolerant vegetation, and the folks who do that sort of work are booked up for months!  Good stuff.

On a basic level though, agencies like these are not rewarded for conserving water – rather, their budget is based on how much water they can SELL.  Hence when their budget inevitably gets cut as for one reason or another customers DO conserve, the first item the agencies understandably cut is their conservation budget.

Meanwhile, you labor unions (Teamsters & Building Trades) who are fighting so hard and bare-knuckled for the mostly temporary jobs building Poseidon, you should look instead to getting MWDOC to go full bore with expanding the Groundwater Reclamation – DEFINITELY a lot of union jobs, for a project that will NOT be adding to your workers’ water bills, and will NOT be mucking up their ocean with thick carpets of brine!  Think about it!  Back to CNN…

[Yamada:  “Unlike, let’s say, water that comes from rainfall, or water that comes from snowpack, we’re using what is essentially the world’s largest reservoir, the Pacific Ocean.” (Debbie groans at hearing the ocean called a reservoir.)

[Rachel:  “The Carlsbad desalination plant will cost approximately one billion dollars.  The fresh water will be pumped ten miles underground into a regional delivery system, providing water to an additional 300,000 San Diego County residents.  (to Yamada) – So, customers, they won’t know whether they’re drinking desalinated water or not?”

[Yamada:  “That’s right.  It’ll just become part of the overall supply.”]

“Pause that.  Oh, they’ll know they’re drinking desalinated water all right.  They won’t know by the taste.  They’ll know in 2016, or soon after, when their water bills go through the roof.”

Here’s a good place to introduce my concept of single, double, or triple whammy.  Our water rates will definitely be going up in the coming years, but we have a choice as to BY HOW MUCH?  Which sounds best or worse?

  • Single whammy – we inevitably conserve more, as we have been, so we buy less water, but the cost of maintaining our current infrastructure stays the same, so the cost of the water necessarily has to rise by a certain amount.
  • Double whammy – we contract with an honest desal company (not Poseidon) and the water rates increase to meet the construction, upkeep, and creation of this much-more expensive water;  meanwhile in a cyclical manner consumers conserve even more because the water’s so damn expensive, causing the prices to rise even higher!
  • Triple whammy – We agree to Poseidon’s demands, known as “take or pay” agreements, where (in order to protect their profits) we agree to buy their expensive water even during rainy times when we don’t need it – and add THAT to the double whammy above!

I say – simple – let’s stick with the “single whammy.”  Back to CNN, “the most relied-upon name in news…”

[Rachel:  “Through a process called reverse osmosis, the plant will convert every two gallons of seawater into one gallon of fresh water, filtering out 99.9% of the salt.  The salt, or brine, that’s removed, is discharged back into the ocean.”]

“That’s right, and no studies have been done yet about what all that brine will do covering the ocean floor.  It’s heavy, you know, it’s gonna sink, and create a thick briny carpet which is bound to kill all or most of the bottom-dwellers in the area where it’s discharged.  And over the years of operation that carpet will get wider and thicker, creating an ever-expanding dead zone.’ 

This isn’t a perfect cautionary tale, as one desal plant isn’t going to kill the whole Pacific ocean, BUT … desal-dependent middle-east nations have ruined their seas with increased salinity to such a degree that they are considering building mammoth pipelines now to NEW seas that they can ruin!

[“…The desalination process traditionally takes a lot of energy.  A plant this size would normally use as much energy in a single day as 70 homes in a year.  Officials at the Carlsbad plant say theirs will use 46% LESS energy.”]

Wait wait wait WHAT?  Did most of that end up on the cutting-room floor?   What the hell do these numbers mean, and what stinky place were they pulled from?  It certainly doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen in their EIR.  What we DO know is the plant will use 34 Megawatts, which would power 25,500 homes all year; God knows what magical figure this supposed 46% is reduced DOWN from.

[“…The project is not without criticism.  Environmentalists point out that desalination requires a lot of energy, and that brine discharge can negatively affect marine life.”

Poseidon’s McLaggan:  “We’ve created more marine wetlands in the south end of San Diego Bay to create new habitats so fish can reproduce there.  With respect to the brine discharge, we dilute the brine with seawater before it leaves the site.”]

“Oh, God.  You can’t just destroy a thousands-of-years-old wetlands somewhere, and then re-create a new one somewhere else.”  Basically some company like Poseidon can’t just re-create what it took God and/or nature thousands of years to develop; also, once you destroy a wetland, many of the countless species that needed it do not come back.

[Rachel:  “The plant is expected to be completed in 2016.”  Yamada:  “Everybody (really, everybody?) is extremely excited to see this project coming online and providing us with a new water supply.”]

EVERYONE is excited about the Carlsbad plant, according to Bob Yamada.

And that’s it.  I guess the message Poseidon spokesmen are trying to get across when they promote this clip as they do is that “See, if CNN, the most relied-upon name in news, can’t find anything bad to say about our Carlsbad plant, and is slack-jaw amazed by it, then how bad could it be?  Let us do Huntington Beach now!”

But this suggests one final question:  This segment was about their Carlsbad project.  But, whatever may be good or bad about that one, how does it reflect on whether we should do the same in Huntington Beach?  What differences are there?  Good questions as cautious policy-makers from HB Councilman Dave Sullivan to new OCWD member Jan Flory are counseling “Let’s wait a couple years to see how Carlsbad goes.”

“The difference is, WE DON’T NEED IT HERE.  Orange County doesn’t need this extra water.  San Diego may think they do, that’s their business.  We have much more affordable and sustainable solutions here in the OC.  But…”  And here Debbie remembers that she’s no longer a politician who needs to come across as a nice person:  “Let them go ahead and build it.  It’s gonna be a stranded asset, a white elephant.  I’ve been fighting it for ten years, its price has gone from 170 million to a billion, and I’m getting tired of saying ‘I told you so.'”


Come back next week, when the same Dynamic Duo will take a critical look at the jury-rigged Grand Jury report Poseidon managed to pull off recently – where, sounding for all the world like 2012-model John McCain trolling for xenophobic Arizona votes, when he strolled along the Mexico border growling “Complete the dang fence!” – these half-informed folks growled “Build the dang plant!”  How did this policy question even come under the Grand Jury’s purview?  Did Poseidon make any provable effort to stack the jury with their supporters?  Why did the Jury only talk to the boards who already support Poseidon?  How many errors and omissions will Debbie be able to find in that report, and how many ill-tasting metaphors will Vern be able to conjure up to illustrate those points?  Stay tuned…

[I know, I could tell you fascinating things about that phony sheriff, but we are officially off track now.]

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.