Public-private partnerships for the profit of urban infrastructure improvement and innovation: the case of seawater desalination facilities in California.
Article written by Olivier Peyre – Posted by Darren Platakis
The CEO of Water Globe Consulting, LLC, Nikolay Voutchkov is an expert in the study and development of seawater desalination technology. In his article from the January 2007 issue of the American magazine Underground Infrastructure Management), Voutchkov introduced several desalination projects that launched in California later that year. Using California as an example, the article underlines the main issues faced by local municipalities regarding their drinking water supply. While the state was on the cusp of significant population growth (the prediction at the time was an increase of 11.5 million new residents by 2013), more and more municipalities are concerned about the unavoidable depletion of water resources from the Colorado River and the San Francisco Bay Delta.
With this concern in mind, experts and local elected officials started turn towards the ocean as an alternative drinking water supply, developing more than a dozen desalination facilities projects along the Californian coastline. Carlsbad and Huntington Beaches were the two first desalination facilities to be established in 2009, and they currently supply about 6 to 10% of the drinking water in Orange and San Diego Counties. Built under public-private partnerships, the facilities were connected to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, where the ocean water was used to cool down the reactors, and the steam generated from this was collected as desalinized water. These installations together formed the biggest seawater desalination complex in the western hemisphere. Before San Onofre closed in 2013, the profitable outcome to the power industry from the association with the drinking water production demonstrated a cost-effective strategy encouraging private investments in public service projects.
In Northern California, similar projects were also pioneered. However, in addition to meeting the increasing demand in drinking water due to population expansion, desalination technologies were also presented as the ultimate alternative to the over-pumping of fresh water from the Bay-Delta aquifer, a process that has increased saline intrusion in the bay and the groundwater. Such an environmental impact encouraged the development of multiple desalination facilities in San Francisco and Monterrey counties, where several municipalities began to substitute the water from the aquifer with desalinated water from the Pacific Ocean.
Voutchkov’s article introduces the case of Easy Bay Municipal Water Districts (EBMWD), another public-private partnership, where the Contra Costa counties work in collaboration with the Alameda group to create a new desalination facility within the C&H Sugar factory. The majority of the water used for the industrial sugar production would come directly from the desalination facility instead of directly from the EBMWD network. This configuration would allow the Alameda plant to continue receiving the water it needs for production, while in exchange, the removal of the concentrate from the desalination process would be released more easily in the existing factory’s sewer system.
On the Marin Municipal Water District’s side (MMWD – Marin County), another desalination facility comes as the alternative to a pipeline project aiming to bring water to arid areas from the already over-pumped Russian River. In the city of Moss, a third desalination facility has been developed under the auspices of municipal funding and the existing infrastructure of a private company, the National Refractories & Minerals Corporation. The company’s private industrial site offers existing underground intake from and output to the ocean, and the water can be used by both the desalination facility and, via a connection, the Moss Landing Power generation plant.
While fresh water from the Colorado River and the San Francisco Bay Delta will remain among the major water sources in the state, these desalination technologies are now the only long-term alternative for the majority of Californians. Twenty additional similar projects are currently in development and are planned to be fully operational by 2020.
There are certainly numerous opportunities for public-private partnerships to develop desalination facilities, thereby fostering cost-effective collaboration in the management of water resources, particularly in regions where water is scarce.
The combination of public investment and private, industrial infrastructure in the production of desalinated water could become a source of inspiration for other regions around the world that are also facing drought and other water shortages.