Water, Water Everywhere!

Salt and Sand, and it Shall Puzzle the Wisest of Men
Henry Huxley

HB Closed for Business.
Photo: Courtesy of Keith May
and OCWeekly

The Solution or a New Problem?
A Conversation with Surfrider’s
Southern California Regional Manager John Geever.

By Chris

On December
15th,at 7PM, the Huntington

Beach City Council is set to vote on the contentious issue of establishing
a water desalination plant alongside the aging oceanside power plant at
the south end of town.

or the process of turning salt water into fresh, would seem like a perfect
solution to water-starved southern California. But recent articles have
run in the Los Angeles Times and the OC Weekly that point
out considerable concerns with this project — and as many as 18 more
planned up and down the Southern California coast.

Of real concern
to surfers is the fact that these plants might have a negative impact
on the surfing environments in towns where they are planned. But in the
case of the Huntington Beach plant, even far away Trestles is apparently
threatened. This is because the primary destination for HB’s water is
not Huntington Beach itself, but the gargantuan 14,000 home development
planned for Rancho Mission Viejo — directly upstream of Trestles clean-flowing
San Mateo Creek. The HB plant, it seems will be the primary source for
this project’s water. Not only that, the desalinated water will return
to the beach — both at Doheny and Trestles — as polluted runoff. Carrying
fertilizer, motor oil, antifreeze, brake dust and possibly sewage. The
water pumped out at HB could ironically, become a major polluter in south
county. Additionally, should the operating plant in nearby Carlsbad be
ramped up to high levels, Surfrider Southern California Regional Manager
Joe Geever asserts that it could have serious impact on marine life in
the area around Tamarack and Terramar.

Read on.

Dixon: Joe, how did you become interested in the issue of desalination?

Geever: In my previous job, I’ve worked in fisheries management. We looked
at cooling water intakes and the impacts on marine life during that job
and because some of the desal proposals that are on the table right now
are integrally linked to cooling water intake. It raised some red flags
with us.


What are the issues from Surfrider and your perspective with this project?

water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
(in HB)
Photo: Courtesy of James Bunoan,

OC Weekly

JG: The
big red flag for me is that these cooling water intakes use ocean water
to cool their generators. They suck in raw water, run it through the plant
one time and then discharge raw water, run it through the plant and discharge
the hot water out the other side. And they kill everything that’s in the
water — there are two kinds of mortality there: one is adult fish and
larger marine life — it gets pinned against the intake screens and dies
from the pressure. They’re giant – that plant runs I think up to 520 millions
gallons of water a day. And it’s under pretty high pressure – so it sucks
in animals from a zone around that intake – anything that’s swimming by.

CD: It’s
like getting caught in a vacuum cleaner.

JG: But
the more troubling aspect – not that that’s not troubling – because it’s
a pretty huge impact, but any larvae, or fish eggs or any juvenile marine
life gets through the screens and goes through the cooling system and
gets introduced to real high pressures and temperatures and can’t survive.
They call that entrainment.

it goes in with the train of water and comes out cooked.

JG: Right.
So, we don’t have a real idea of the cumulative impact all these generators
are having on the region-wide populations of marine species.

there hasn’t been much research done

Well, what they do is study these things site by site to see what’s being
killed at each site. But because we don’t really have a good idea of what
the total populations of these species are in the oceans to begin with,
we don’t know what fraction of that population has been affected.

there’s this proposal to build this desalination plant — will it result
in even high draws of water

JG: Well
that’s the big question. What’s on the table now is that the US EPA is
looking at these cooling water intakes and looking for technology that
can avoid these cooling water intakes altogether and build what they call
cooling towers that cool the water and recycle it through the generator
like a radiator. So there’s the potential for getting rid of these cooling
water intakes and along with that you get the added benefit of these coastal
generators don’t really need to be located on the coast anymore, so you
free up a lot of coastal space where these generators used to be.

are two problems I see with adding a desal plant to a coastal generator
— one, is that coastal generator is probably pretty outdated and wouldn’t
survive much longer on their own. But if you add a desal plant to it,
it gives it extended life.

it gives an added incentive to keep a potentially dated and dirty plant

Some of the generators that would have been decommissioned will continue
to exist with or without cooling towers. We would hope that they would
convert to cooling towers but they should probably just be decommissioned.

The other
aspect is that we don’t really know much about the mortality of sea life
associated with these plants. There may be a small fraction of all species
that survive this entrainment and if they do, they will be impinged on
the reverse osmosis that are used on these desal plants. Even the dissolved
salts don’t get through these reverse osmosis filters. So we don’t understand
what’s happening with the survival rates, and the other thing is that
oftentimes, these plants, especially Huntington, they will only be running
one generator even though they have three on site. But when you add a
desal plant — because desal plants take so much electricity to run —
there’s a good chance that the generators will be running overtime and
running at times when they wouldn’t have been otherwise.

Adding more pollution to the air…

JG: Adding
more pollution to the air and higher marine life mortality. You’re pulling
in more water and the more water you pull, the more marine life you kill.

What their
response is that pumps are running all the time anyway and that’s true,
but my counter response is, they shouldn’t be. If you’re not cooling a
generator with this thing, you shouldn’t be running it.

Is it run to keep barnacles out of the pipes?


if the water sits there, you have marine life encrusting those pipes.
So they keep the water flowing as much as they can to hold down that marine
life growing on the pipes. Then the other thing they do is reverse the
flow so that you’re pumping the hot water out through what used to be
your intake. That kills those barnacles.

So marine
life mortality for them is just the nature of doing business. That to
me is very offensive. Especially when there’s other technology out there
that could avoid that mortality.

The desal
plant itself has said point blank that we don’t create any additional
marine life mortality above what is happening now just by the generator
itself. I think there are some questions as to whether that’s true. Just
because they’ve made that kind of conclusion their environmental study
didn’t document whether that was true or not.

It seems like a no-brainer that anything that did survive the heating
surely wouldn’t survive a trip to the desal plant. Plus, if it keeps the
plant running longer than it normally would, then it’s going to kill more.


Isn’t there also the issue of what you do with the brine — the highly
concentrated salt water that comes out of this plant?

– Site of Carlsbad’s Desal Plant, and a Productive Fishery:
Photo Courtesy, Surfline

JG: Yeah,
it’s a case by case, site specific study and in the case of Huntington,
their discharge is in fairly flat, sandy ,not very productive marine habitat.
So my sense is that in Huntington, most of what you’re doing is adding
salt in a fairly low concentration and it dilutes fairly quickly. So there
is a zone around that discharge pipe where you’re displacing animals that
would have normally lived there — and they’re most likely to be replaced
by animals that can withstand that salinity. And it’s probably mostly
scavengers because you’re pumping out all that dead marine plankton.

What are some other areas up and down the coast where these are being
looked at?

JG: The first
is probably the Carlsbad generator. They actually have a pilot facility
there that’s producing a very small quantity. They’re using it to kind
of model what this thing would look like on a larger scale.

That one
is troublesome because their intake is in a coastal estuary, and you know,
we’ve lost 95 percent of our coastal estuaries in Southern California.
So you’re having a potential impact on an estuarine habitat where there’s
very little left.

CD: That’s
where the warm water jetties area is.

JG: Right
the intake jetty is up by Tamarack and the outfall is right there by the
power plant. And that outfall is not miles offshore in deep water, it’s
just going out into the surf zone — right next to some hard bottom reefs
and surf spots that are just south of there. And that hard-bottom rocky
reef habitat is very productive for fish.

CD: So
there you could really see a heightened impact from the brine.

We haven’t seen or done any studies on what those impacts are — but it
would certainly be different.

CD: But
doesn’t the fact that studies haven’t been done call into question the
need to do this so quickly? If you don’t know what the result is, it seems
like you’re trying to get forgiveness instead of permission, which is
always easier if you screw something up.

JG: There
are two things about the rush to desal that are disturbing. One is that
we really don’t know the answer to a lot of key questions. The other
is the need. Because we really haven’t taken water reclamation or conservation
to the extremes that you could. Our argument is that before you go racing
into producing desal water, let’s exhaust all these other remedies we

Let’s do
all these water conservation activities so that we’re not using as much
water. Two things happen with that. One is that you get the supply you’re
looking for and two our water usage patterns are creating pollution that
we want to avoid.

CD: Meaning
things like polluted runoff. You increase the runoff because there is
more water to flow to the ocean. The desal water becomes additional water
that’s going to pick up oil, antifreeze, dog crap, fertilizer and brake
dust and dump it into the ocean.