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Desalination and War Profiteering in the City of Santa Cruz
The City of Santa Cruz has entered into an arrangement with a global engineering firm, Camp Dresser and Mckee, to build a trial desalination plant on the Westside of Santa Cruz. The company in question is a global engineering firm with contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan and which has an unsavory history of bribing public officials. Desalination has a very poor economic and environmental track record, but the city has nevertheless signed a multi-million dollar contract with this firm.
Anyone who lives in California for any length of time realizes that the water supply for our state is a contentious issue. The limited summer rainfall means that the entire state is dependent on reservoirs and the melting snowpack for our water supply. In the past, issues have included the diversion of water from Mono Lake to supply Southern California with water, as well as the ongoing struggle between agricultural water users and those concerned with the health of rivers in Northern California.
Along the Central Coast, the most recent issue is the use of desalination – an energy-intensive process that removes salt from seawater. The technology in use is called reverse osmosis and involves using powerful pumps to force water through specialized membranes which exclude charged ions (salt, for example) but allow water and other neutral species to pass through. A wide variety of pollutants pass through reverse osmosis systems; this is why most home water purification systems include activated carbon filters as well.
The track record of large desalination projects is exemplified by the Tampa Bay desalination plant constructed by Poseidon resources. According to reports in the Tampa Bay Herald, the plant’s filters clogged faster than expected and the water department has been unable to hold Poseidon to their contractual obligations. The citizens of Tampa Bay ended up paying $80 million of the $110 million required to build the plant, and are still left with the problem of how to clean up the mess. By comparison, a large-scale Santa Cruz desalination plant would cost upwards of $40 million dollars.
Desalination is very energy-intensive, as massive pumps are required to force the water through the membranes. What is startling is that in spite of the large expenditures of scarce city funds being spent on this project, the Water Department has yet to conduct a study on how much it would cost to run a full-scale desalination plant.
The cost of maintaining the plant is also a significant factor. The lifetime of the filters is an important issue, since anyone who has been in our local Pacific Ocean knows that it is usually very murky with low visibility, and clogged filters are a likely problem.
The City Council of Santa Cruz and the Water Department have nevertheless moved forward with a proposal to build a trial desalination project plant on the Westside of Santa Cruz at the Long Marine Lab site. In November of 2005, the City Council approved a contract with the global engineering firm Camp, Dresser and Mckee, Inc. (CDM) in the amount of $3.2 million. No construction has yet taken place, but the proposal is moving forward.
While the City Council Agenda report of November 2005 states that the firm is in Walnut Creek, CA, that is a rather deceptive description. The Center for Public Integrity has an informative report on CDM at http://www.public-i.org/wow/bio.aspx?act=pro&ddlC=7. This privately held company was among the top five contractors higher to clean up the Hart Senate Office Building after the October 2001 anthrax attacks. It is worth noting that the top contractor on that job was IT Group, which was partially owned by the huge private equity fund, The Carlyle Group, which is described by Dan Briody in his book, “The Iron Triangle”.
CDM has also been involved the illegal bribery of public officials. Mike Hudson in the Los Angeles Times on May 29, 2006 of the recent federal criminal charges against a CDM senior vice-president, Gilbert Jackson. Jackson worked with Nate Gray, who was a close friend of the Cleveland Mayor, Mike White. Gray was given a $2,500 per month retainer by CDM, and he worked with Jackson to secure water contracts. Their methods included using Jackson’s home as the site for political fundraisers for the mayor, as well as giving the Cleveland Water Commissioner tickets to 22 Cleveland Indian baseball games. Federal wiretaps of Gray included this statement: "Ninety percent of getting public contracts required greasing the palms of public officials."
Closer to home, Norman Z. Eckenrode, a city councilman in Placentia, California who also serves on the Orange County was fined for receiving a $1000 donation from CDM on Oct 29, 2003, just seven days after voting for two sanitation contracts with CDM; the net value of those contracts was $3.5 million, as reported by Dan Weikel in the Los Angeles Times, Aug 31, 2006. He was cited under the Political Reform Act, which prohibits policymakers from accepting donations of more than $250 within three months of voting on any subject that has a financial effect on their donors.
When this reporter enquired the name of the person at CDM who was the contact for the City of Santa Cruz Water Department from Linette Almond, the staff manager for the project, the response was that that information could not be given out since the city would be billed for any phone calls the reporter made to CDM.
CDM is also involved with the Moss Landing Desalination Project and the Sand City Desalination Project, but apparently in an advisory or consulting role in conjunction with the firm Jones & Stokes Associates. The main contractor in Moss Landing is Cal-Am water, who has been embroiled in a dispute with Felton residents over the privatization of their water supply.
What is of particular relevance to Santa Cruz liberal politics is that this company is also active in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the recipient of a number of multi-million dollar water supply and reconstruction contracts in these two countries. The exact details are difficult to discover, but there numerous reports of political cronyism in the awarding of these contracts to such firms as Bechtel and Halliburton - Kellog, Brown and Root. Along these lines, CDM is one of the top clients of the lobbying firm Barbour, Griffiths & Rogers, which was founded by the former chairman of the Republican National Party and the deputy assistant to the first President Bush.
While most proposals on the table for desalination in the Monterey Bay area involve the construction of ‘research pilot plants’ in Santa Cruz and Moss Landing, this may simply be a deceptive maneuver whose real intent is to use the permits for the ‘research plants’ as a gateway to building large-scale desalination systems.
There are also numerous environmental problems with desalination, including the ejection of the brine wastewater into the local ocean and the death of any marine organisms that are sucked into the seawater intake.
In summary, the City of Santa Cruz appears to be engaging in an environmentally unfriendly and technologically and economically unfeasible boondoggle that will end up costing the taxpayers of Santa Cruz millions of dollars and that will result in unknown increases to water bills long after the current city councilmembers have moved on. The desalination technology has never been successfully deployed on a large scale in the United States, and the main effect seems to be a transfer of public funds from the city tax pool to the global engineering firm of Camp Dresser & McKee.