Interview with Mesa Water General Manager Paul Shoenberger

First posted May 28, 2012

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

In January, I sat down for 30 minutes with Paul Shoenberger, the general manager for the Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa, California, to talk about CalDesal a non-profit organization whose 70 or so members, according to April, 2011 stats (neither Mesa nor CalDesal will release up to date figures), are about evenly divided between public water agencies and private water-related companies.

Paul Shoenberger General Manager for Mesa Water District

CalDesal lobbies for the construction of ocean and groundwater water desalination (although the emphasis is mostly on ocean desalination) and for the “streamlining” of environmental regulations to help achieve that goal.

Mesa Water Directors James Atkinson and James Fisler mix up business with pleasure and CalDesal Mixer. Photo: public records

Shortly into the 21st Century, plans to build ocean desalination plants where proposed for the cities of Carlsbad and Huntington Beach. Most of the permitting process has been completed for both plants but huge financial obstacles remain after construction costs and estimated water rates have skyrocketed.

Poseidon Resources Inc. would build the two nearly identical ocean desalination plants, each of which will suck in over 100 million gallons of sea water each per day to produce 50 million gallons of potable drinking water. They would be the largest ocean desalination plants in the United States at an estimated cost of over $700 million each.

In 2006, twenty-nine ocean desalination plants of various sizes were envisioned for the California coastline all the way to Santa Cruz, including a 15 million gallon per day facility that just finished its testing phase in Dana Point.

But after more than a decade of planning and marketing, and pushing projects through the planning and permitting process, a tight coalition of water industry leaders, real estate developers, and public-sector technocrats is far from realizing its desalination dream.

Only nine ocean desalination proposals remain in contention and not a single one has broken ground or seems likely to anytime soon.

That’s good news for opposition groups who have long claimed that ocean desalination is too costly and damaging to the ocean environment, and that conservation, sewage water reclamation, and increased water capture and storage are the right methods for ensuring an adequate water supply for California in the future.

Shoenberger and other proponents, however, officially insist that ocean desalination is not a “silver bullet” but will be a vital part of California’s water portfolio. They depict the process as environmentally sound and sustainable and say that costs for desalinated ocean water will one day be less than the costs of imported water from the San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River.

In any case, they say, developing ocean desalination infrastructure is worth the extra cost due to potentially disastrous water supply outcomes for California from earthquakes and drought, and that it will help create badly needed jobs.

But public opposition to building ocean desalination plants along the coast has grown stronger over the past decade along with other potential obstacles to plans to construct ocean desalination plants in California.

CalDesal mixer and board meeting
Paul Shoenberger (r) at CalDesal spring board meeting/mixer. Photo: public records

Once-through-cooling, the intake method preferred by desalination proponents because it sucks in huge quantities of sea water through already existing intake systems attached to electrical power generating plants – like exist in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach – is deemed destructive to the coast’s fragile balance of marine life by ocean scientists, and state regulators have ordered it to be phased out within a decade.

How that ban will apply to ocean desalination, if at all, is under consideration by state regulators. Opponents and proponents are vying for influence in that debate.

In the midst of a weak economy, and as the research and development needed to provide the promised cost-saving technological improvements has reached a dead end, even some long-time ocean desalination proponents are now questioning the efficacy of large desalination projects.

To answer challenges to the development of ocean desalination made by opposition groups, find ways of by-passing current environmental regulations and to prevent new regulations that would contain the potential dangers of a new source of water – specifically to persuade state regulators to preserve the once-through-cooling process for desalination – a coalition of southern California water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET), West Basin Municipal Water District, San Diego Water Authority, City of Long Beach, and MWDOC in 2006 hired two consultants, Byron Buck and subcontractor Mary Jane Foley, wife of current MET chairman (representing MWDOC) John V. Foley.

One of their tasks was to “Investigate formation requirements and recommend process for potential CalDesal organization exclusive to seawater desalination.”

At that time Paul Shoenberger was working for West Basin as its assistant general manager. He worked there for 15 years before becoming the general manager at Mesa Water in 2009, where he had also served as an elected member of the board of directors since 2000.

As Mesa Water’s general manager, he began working to form CalDesal in earnest under the auspices of its board of directors. To get it started, he incorporated the organization in his own name and various members of the Mesa Water board served as its temporary board of directors.

CalDesal became fully organized as a 501 (c) 6 non-profit organization at a meeting at the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa in Indian Wells on December 1, 2010.

The Interview

SCV: When you came to Mesa Water you became involved in starting up CalDesal.

Shoenberger: Yes.

Talk about the amount of time you have spent forming that. There were a lot of people contributing to it from other agencies. You were the father figure [of CalDesal] throughout all that process. Explain how that came about.

CalDesal Poster. Photo: public records

The Mesa Water board supports the development of local and reliable sources of water. That’s part of Mesa’s mission—to provide our customers with water. We have been very active in recycled water, conservation and groundwater treatment. The board asked me to help start up CalDesal. It was a board directive in a public meeting to allow me to spend some time on starting up CalDesal. Our main efforts and our main purpose is toward serving our citizens water. We certainly spend a lot more time and effort on recycling and conservation. But there was a perceived need for an organization for desalination similar to what those supplies have. The board said “Go ahead and do it.”

But Mesa is self-contained. You don’t even import any water, do you?

We do, but it’s through our efforts and our current groundwater treatment project that at this time next year, for the first time, we will not need to import water going forward. And that has been a goal of the board since the 80s. We’ve been putting in more groundwater wells, conservation and recycled water. So this is really the culmination of a long-term goal to become what we call local and reliable. Our goal is not to be taking in imported water.

Since Mesa Water will not need external sources of water, why the obsession with desalination when you’re not even going to use it?

If we do have an obsession I think it’s to be local and reliable. And that’s where we really put our time and our money – primarily groundwater treatment, recycling, and conservation. We do have an interest for not only Mesa but the whole water community to be reliable. If desal fits and helps our neighbors become more reliable that is better for us because we are all interconnected physically with pipes. And if we have a neighbor that has a water emergency, needs water, we’re going to help them out. The more reliable the area is, the more reliable Mesa is, the water is. Whatever our neighbors want to go with, we will support that.

Certainly those other agencies are able to take care of themselves. You seem to have the interest in this [promoting desalination] yourself.

Yeah. We do have an interest. The amount of time and effort that I’ve spent is pretty di minimus, especially compared to the other activities that I do as General Manager. We’ve been successful, which is good. But, like I said, our board is for local [and] reliable [water]. There’s a need and the water community works together to try to solve issues.

CalDesal is a lobbying organization for the desalination industry. What about the appropriateness of using public funds and public time to promote an industry and the potential conflicts of interest there. And I want to read you one other person’s reaction to that, what she says about that. And that’s from Debbie Cook.

“It is clear from the record that CalDesal is a lobbying firm and Shoenberger has assumed a role far beyond that of casual membership.  Its sole purpose is to promote the interests of the desalination industry.  It is no more appropriate for a public agency and its General Manager to support CalDesal than it would be for the US Department of Health and Human Services to support the Tobacco Institute.   Mesa’s entanglement with CalDesal calls into question every decision that the agency makes with regard to desalination.   It also calls to question the integrity of its General Manager. He is unable to perform his duties in a fair and unbiased way and is acting as a cheerleader for CalDesal rather than the objective leader of a public agency.”

Well, two things. One is, what is the mission of CalDesal? And the mission of Caldesal is to promote a local, reliable water supply – desalination. It’s to promote environmentally acceptable desalination where appropriate. And so that is the mission of CalDesal.  That is similar to many other non profits that the water community is involved in; such as, Water Reuse Association, the Urban Water Conservation Council, the Ground Water Association.

And the Urban Water Institute?

The Urban Water Institute. Those are all non-profits that have interests in water and water supply. So, what you said is that Caldesal’s goal is to support the desalination industry. Water projects do create economy and jobs, but that’s incidental to the mission. Our mission is to supply our community with water.

To answer the second part, is this a conflict of interest for me to be involved in CalDesal at any level? The answer to that is no.

In an email that you wrote to your secretary you responded to an inquiry from a representative of the water industry who wanted to know what the benefits would be for his company to join CalDesal. And you said, “Our benefit to him is twofold; one, help create more desal projects in California and potential work for his company; and, two, provide a client-rich group for him to network with.”

Yeah, those would be the benefits for a manufacturer to join Caldesal. Those are the secondary impacts of us creating economy if projects like this go forward. But Caldesal’s primary mission is to support sustainability [through] desalination.

Mesa Water Director Fred R. Bockmiller (center) at CalDesal meeting/mixer. Photo: public records

Most of CalDesal’s members pay a $5,000 annual membership fee. Based on the last membership roster that I saw, about half of its members are from the [water] industry. The rest were from [public] water agencies. Who is getting more representation by those water agencies, the ratepayers who are just paying their [water] bills or the CalDesal members who pay $5,000?

I believe the water community is focusing on its core mission. That’s to provide plentiful, safe and reliable water. And if you look at Water Reuse they have a similar structure of agencies and private consultants and others. Same with Urban Water Conservation Council. That’s how these non-profits are formed. CalDesal is similar to those other types of organizations.

Are there any conservation or environmentally related groups that Mesa belongs to? Why isn’t there something like a CalConservation that you are equally involved in?

There is. I mean, Water Reuse is one, to reuse and recycle water.

All of those groups are dominated by industry though, right? Are there any that you [Mesa Water] are members of that are dominated by environmentalists, just for balance?

The Urban Water Conservation Council is that. And our core mission is water, not so much to promote the environment. That’s the mission of other agencies like the Coastal Commission and the Regional Board, Department of Public Health. So we have to stay with our core mission, which is water.

But the mission isn’t to promote the water industry, is it? I mean, it’s to support the reliable –

Yes, it’s to provide out citizens with a quality of life when it comes to water, having water there and having it safe.

The first time I asked Mesa Water for CalDesal documents I was told that Mesa is separate from CalDesal, that CalDesal was a private organization, and that Mesa didn’t have any of those documents. The second time I asked, a couple of months later, I received hundreds of documents. Speak to the issue of transparency and the mingling of government and CalDesal.

Mesa Water has a practice of being open and transparent and we respond to public records requests. We have a whole transparency section on our website. Our salaries and benefits and open public meetings and all that. CalDesal is a non-profit, just like the Surfriders or the Coastkeepers and others and they operate the way non profits do. So, there’s a difference.

Talk about the pipeline that’s probably going to go through Costa Mesa from the [proposed] Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant. There are potential alternatives, but a lot of people in Costa Mesa are angry about that.

CalDesal opening night mixer. Paul Shoenberger (L) speaks to the members as they enjoy libations. Photo: Public records

Our board has made no position on the pipeline and will not do so until after there is a full vetting of the issue in public process. And those who support it and those who have concerns will have plenty of opportunity to have their voices heard. Only after that process will our board make a decision, based upon what it feels is in the best interest for our customers and for our ratepayers.

You talked about Mesa’s mission to provide reliable water. What about the philosophy that is often mixed with that, which seems to be one of providing water for unchecked growth as opposed to changing lifestyles in a broader sense so that we don’t see the ocean or other sources of water as a never ending source for development?

The mission of Mesa Water is to supply water to those folks who are in our district. So if you want to talk about pro-growth or anti-growth you really need to go to the land-use-planning folks and talk to them about what development or what new things need to be done. Our mission is to provide those who are here with the water.

So is your mission subservient to the development plans of the other agencies, cities, etc?

We’re not involved in those discussions.

You’re not promoting development, per se?

No. That’s land use planning function.

A bill was passed in the House recently to support desalination research. Government really got desalination going through research and development back in the 60s. What do you think is the appropriate role of government in developing desalination, including subsidies?

I don’t think that Mesa Water should be subsidizing desalination. And that’s on a state or regional or federal level. We’ll leave that up to those policy makers.

But CalDesal promotes all that, right?

CalDesal will probably get involved in that, yeah.

What do you see for the future of desalination in Orange County and the state, short term and long term?

Long term, desalination is one of these supplies that are local and reliable. And I think that desalination will be part of the mixture in the long term. I don’t think it’s the solution to all our water issues, but it is a part of the answer. Short term, I think it’s still up in the air as to when the first project is really going to go online.

Do you think the Poseidon ocean desalination plant [planned for] in Huntington Beach will ever be built?

That I don’t know. That I don’t know. It could or it couldn’t.

Any other comments?

I do want to make one pitch that we are spending $20 million on our groundwater treatment project. Every year about $1.6 million out of our budget goes for conservation. And we reduce the cost for our recycled water – it’s the only supply that we sell at a discount and so we forgo about $140,000 a year in revenue to promote recycled water. So if you really look at where we’re putting the money and where we’re putting our time and our effort, it’s the supplies that we have developed that are making us very unique in Orange County in the sense that we’re going to be not importing water. We’re going to be local and reliable and that local reliable mix is very low energy intensive as compared to other mixes that import water. So, we are very proud of what we’re doing here.

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