FROM A MEKONG DELTA THREATENED BY SALINIZATION TO THE CARLSBAD DESALINATION PLANT – THE LARGEST OF ITS KIND IN THE UNITED STATES

To the 20 million inhabitants
of the Mekong Delta
suffering from drought, salinization
and scarcity of fresh water

To the Friends of the Mekong Group


Picture 1_FROM THE SOURCE OF SEAWATER. Poseidon Water / Carlsbad Desalination Plant, is a plantusing seawater and reverse osmosis to produce 50 million gallons of fresh water per day (190,000 m3), this is a source of potable water to 400,000 residents in San Diego County. The Friends of the Mekong Group on a visit to the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the largest of its kind in the US;  From right: Ngô Thế Vinh, Jessica H. Jones Director of Communications,Engineer Phạm Phan Long. [photo by Ngô Minh Triết] (1)


Picture 2_ FROM THE SOURCE OF WASTE WATER.Visit to two plants: (1) Waste Water Treatment Plantusing waste water to produce 100 million gallons / day (378,000 m3) of clean water to the residents of Orange County; (2) Ground Water Replenishement System (GWRS). Ms. Becky Mudd (center) in charge of public relations, Engineer Phạm Phan Long (right), Ngô Thế Vinh (left). [photo by Nguyễn Đăng Anh Thi] (4)

WORLD WATER DAY 2020

Twenty seven years ago, since 1993, following the recommendation initiated by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development / UNCED held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil [1992], the United Nations chose March 22 each year as the World Water Day.

Every year, the United Nations picked a theme for the World Water Day. All campaigns, seminars, public information or education efforts will revolve around that theme.

Water is an accepted symbol of life. Consequently, each time water is detected on a distant planet, astronomers optimistically assume that life and living creatures may exist on it. Our earth will become a dead planet if it is devoid of water. In human history, civilizations have become extinct not only due to pestilence but also penury of water.   

Nevertheless, water scarcity poses an immediate and increasingly serious threat to the world we are living in today. World Water Day offers an opportunity for all to ponder on the importance of freshwater sources and inspire us to campaign for and support a sustainable management of those sources.

Scarcity of water may impact the food security of the world, cause political instability and result in large-scale environmental refugees.  In the future, climate changemay entail extreme water phenomena: devastating droughts or natural disasters like more frequent as well as destructive storms and floods.   

In 2019, The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres hosted a Climate Summit to urgently undertake measures to implement the Paris Agreement. In 2020 in preparation for World Water Day, each participating nation is expected to present a specific plan of action in order to cope with issues pertaining to water with a special focus on water and climate change.(3)

On account of climate change, the Mekong Delta is rated as one of the most fragile basins facing this paradox: a glut of brackish and polluted water on one hand and a scarcity of clean, fresh water and alluvia on the other.

CARLSBAD WATER DESALINATION PLANT 

Commercial operation started on 12.14.2015 in the city of Carlsbad, California.  The plant is located adjacent to and north of the Encina Power Station. Its address: 4600 Carlsbad Blvd. Carlsbad, CA 92008. This US$ 784 million project was financed through the sales of bonds. It was later sold to private investors in the amount of US$ 1 billion. The plant produces 50 million gallons of fresh water per day [equivalent to 190,000 m3] from seawater to serve 400,000 residents of San Diego County at a cost of half a penny per gallon.
The project to build a desalination plant in San Diego County began in 1993 after California experienced a drought that lasted for five years. The membrane technology used in the plant was pioneered by General Atomics La Jolla.



Picture 3_ The Carlsbad Desalination Plant: built on a four-acre lot, address: 4600 Carlsbad Blvd. Carlsbad, CA 92008. Inaugurated on 12.14. 2015, adjacent to the deactivated  Encina Power Station, on the bank of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon,Pacific Ocean. The plant is run by a skeleton crew thanks to automation. (1,2)

It is envisioned that this plant will provide an additional fresh water source to supplement those of the Colorado River, the Sacramento River basin in Northern California, in conjunction with rain water and groundwater… 

Initially, the environmentalists strongly opposed this project for the following reasons: waste of energy consumption, brine discharge with too high a saline content, and the intake of seawater may cause death to the fish. The five major lawsuits filed against the desalination plant were eventually dismissed by the court.

Construction of the plant started in December of 2012 – 19 years after the project was first conceived (1993 - 2012), with an expected completion date of April, 2016. However, it was completed one year early on account of the prolonged drought in California. After a successful test run lasting for six months, the plant began to supply fresh water to San Diego.

The plant is managed by Poseidon Water, its construction undertaken by the main engineering firms: GHD Group, IDE Americas Inc. – a subsidiary of Israel-based IDE Technology.

The fresh water is transported by a 10-mile (16 km) long, 4.5-foot (1.4 m) diameter pipeline to the SDCWA distribution system in San Marcos for final distribution to the users in the entire San Diego area.

HOW DOES THE PLANT OPERATE?

The Carlsbad plant is built adjacent to the deactivated Encina Power Plant. Consequently, it can make use of the lagoon as well as the latter’s intake and discharge pumps without having to build new ones.

Up to 100,000,000 US gallons (380,000 m3) per day of the cooling water from the Encina Power Plant are drawn into the Carlsbad plant. In the first stage, this water goes through layers of gravel, sand and anthracite to remove mineral, biological, organic impurities and suspended particulates.

In the next stage, a process called reverse osmosis filtration is used to eliminate salt from the water. Half of the seawater taken into the plant is converted into pure potable water. The other half is technically known as concentrated brine. Because its saline content is over 20% higher than seawater it needs to be diluted before being discharged back into the sea.  The NRG Encina Power Station has stopped operating since 2017, and Poseidon Water will be in charge of this diluting process.


Picture 4_ Jessica H. Jones explained: seawater is pumped into the plant; it then runs through layers of gravel, sand and anthracite to eliminate impurities and suspended particulatesbefore going through the next stage to get rid of the salt content.(1,2)


Picture 5_ in this stage, seawater is separated from its salt content as it runs through “reverse osmosis membranes”.The holes in the membranesare extremely microscopic measuring only 1 one-millionth the diameter of a human hair. (1,2)

Even though the plant has been in operation for five years, the technical team constantly monitors its impacts on the environment. A survey conducted in January, 2019 showed that the discharge from the plant has raised the salt content in the seawater offshore to no more than 10% resulting in insignificant impacts on the marine life of the neighboring area.


Picture 6_ Jessica demonstrates the reverse osmosis membranes used in the desalination process. When asked about their lifespan,she replies “10 years”which is quite surprising to us. From right: Jessica, Ngô Thế Vinh, Engineer Ngô Minh Triết, and visitors to the plant. [photo by Phạm Phan Long]

SOME ROUGH SAILING

To offset the environmental impacts, 27 hectares of wetlands will be built along the San Diego Bay - solar panels will be installed on the roof of the plant and the carbon emission offsets will be purchased.

On account of its concerns for the environment, San Diego Coastkeeper (2015) has filed a suit against SDCWA. They claimed that SDCWA has violated the California Environmental Quality Act through its excessive use of energy and the greenhouse effect it created. They do not oppose the Carlsbad desalination project but demand that the plant demonstrates appropriate attempts to properly mitigate its negative impacts on the environment. Their demands have been considered and addressed by SDCWA.

California sets the strictest requirements to protect the environment in the nation. As a result, besides the costs of transporting the fresh water over a distance of 16 km to the end-user cities, the plant also incurs additional expenses like dredging the ocean floor, reforestation, Net Zero carbon footprint, breeding of marine life in the lagoon, relocating marine life to a nearby location in San Diego, including an unrelenting PR Campaign to sustain public support for the plant.

WATER QUALITY AND PRODUCTION COST

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant has been operating for five years and earned a good reputation thanks to the quality of its fresh water. Currently, the plant generates 50 million US gallons [190,000 m3] of fresh water per day from seawater.  It serves 400,000 residents in the County of San Diego; at a fixed cost of half a penny per gallon for 30 years. [compared to the cost of ¾ of a penny per gallon purchased from the Colorado River. There is a possibility that this cost may increase in the future].

The San Diego County Water Authhority – SDCWA called the plant"the nation’s largest, most technologically advanced and energy-efficient seawater desalination plant."

We were informed that our visit to the plant was one of the last tours for this year. No new visits are planned because Poseidon Water is about to start, in the near future, phase 2 of the plan to expand and increase the production capacity of the plant.

*


Picture 7_From an unlimited supply of seawater from the Pacific Ocean, fresh water is produced through a process of elimination of impurities and salt. Poseidon Water produces 50 million gallons – 190,000 m3of fresh water/day, at a cost of ½ penny/ gallon and the cities pay SDCWA for their meter usage. [photo by Phạm Phan Long]

THE MEKONG DELTA IS CELEBRATING A TẾT MARKED BY SALINIZATION AND TECHNOLOGICAL APPLICATION

Days prior to Tết, Dohamide / Đỗ Hải Minh, an ethnic Chăm and native of Châu Đốc, warned: Bến Tre is experiencing severe salinization. Living overseas at the age of 86 and in failing health, he never ceases showing a deep love for the motherland.

Phạm Đỗ Chí PhD sent me those lines of Tản mạn cuối năm / Random thoughts at year end by Lưu Trọng Văn: Only two more days from Tết. Fresh water did not show up inSóc Trăng, brackish water overflowed the riverbanks, In the wells drilled deep into the ground there was barely enough water for human consumption, let alone the trees...

Of the projected 14 thermal power plants in the Mekong Delta, only three are presently in operation. Yet, the pollution they cause are already extensive in the form of coal slags on the land and smoke or fine coal particles in the air … with that environmental disaster in mind, Engineer Phạm Phan Long of the Viet Ecology Foundation (VEF) proposes that the low cost from renewable energy either wind or solar will force the eventual closure of thermal power plants. A case in point is the Carlsbad Desalination Plant that is built on the foundation of the deactivated Encina Power Station.  Likewise, in the future, the closure of those thermal power plants in the Mekong Delta will be replaced by plants to process sea or waste water. 

As we cross the threshold of the 21st century, we do not lack any sustainable and economically feasible technology for renewable energy and water source, Lacking is a policy, a plan as well as leaders who possess a strategic outlook.



Picture 8_While the province of Bến Tre is being submerged by brackish water, in the morning of 01.10.2020,under the auspice of The Government Program for Science and Technology[sic,]a conference was held to introduce to the public fresh water containers (with a capacity of 1 to 100 m3),manufactured by the plastic company Tân Đại Hưng [source: SGGP Online 11.01.2020]. The people of Bến Tre had the opportunity to learn more aboutan effective solutionto deal with the drought & salt intrusion in their region [eMagazine of Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment, 12.01.2020]. 

If the United States has become a rich and powerful nation, in large part it is thanks to the ingenuity of its private investors. They know how to derive personal gains from public interests. Standing in the Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the largest of its kind in the US, and totally financed by private sources; it is difficult not to think of Vietnam, of the Mekong Delta, of the big magnates in Vietnam today. The majority of them made their fortune and become US$ billionaires from real estate investment using the land owned by the people or from the exclusive rights they hold to exploit the country’s natural resources. Have they ever thought of somehow giving back to their country and people who have toiled and moiled on their land and helped make them what they are now?

Then, when we turn our eye to the Government, its leaders have wasted billions of US Dollars in construction projects. A good example of it is the Ba Lai Irrigation Project and the other systems to fight salinization all over the Mekong Delta. They all ended up in complete fiascoes. In the aftermath of the Ba Lai Irrigation Project, another, in a much larger scale, is waiting in the wings: the  Cái Lớn-Cái Bé irrigation project.  

The government should take a more practical approach:  channel those US$ billions into projects that promise to bring about real benefits to the public. To start with: allocate 1 US$ billion to build a Desalination Plant, another billion for a  Waste Water Treatment Plant. They are most urgently needed by the 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta who have to face currently a scarcity of fresh water in the midst of a drought and a polluted water source.

It would represent a real technological solution to the problem we are facing. Not the plastic containers for fresh water being sold to the farmers under the unwarranted claim for credit of The Government Program for Science and Technology. [sic] 

If such a proposal is implemented, Vietnam would be the pioneer country in Southeast Asia to apply modern technology to cope with climate change and the destructive exploitation that emanates from the dams built upstream on the Mekong River.

The Friends of the Mekong Group would like to address this article to the 20 million inhabitants of the 13 Provinces in the Mekong Delta who are facing severe water scarcity including potable water. There is, however, still hope if the people have leaders who really care for them and have a strategic outlook.

 

NGÔ THẾ VINH, MD

Carlsbad Desalination Plant 01.2020
Little Saigon, The First Day of Tết

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Claude "Bud" Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claude_%22Bud%22_Lewis_Carlsbad_Desalination_Plant

  2. Carlsbad Desalination Project. Enhancing Water Reliability for San Diego County. https://www.carlsbaddesal.com/uploads/1/0/0/4/100463770/pw_tour_boards_48x96_012916_webv4.pdf

  3. World Water Day 2020: Water and Climate Change. UN Water 22 March World Water Day https://www.worldwaterweek.org/event/8398-world-water-day-2020-water-and-climate-change

  4. Ngày Nước Thế giới 2017 với chủ đề Nước Thải. Đi Thăm Khu nhà máy xử lý Nước thải và Hệ thống bổ sung tầng nước ngầm tại Quận Cam. Ngô Thế Vinh, Viet Ecology Foundation 23.03.2017 http://vietecology.org/Article/Article/266
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