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Nov-16-2012 13:25printcomments

CalDesal 1st Annual Desalination Conference in Irvine CA

“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else.” Winston Churchill


(LAGUNA BEACH, CA) - I’ve intuitionally felt for quite some time the resonance of Churchill’s quote in regards to desalination in general: We’ve drained our streams, our lakes and aquifers dry, that damned desalination is the last tool in the water supply pouch, perhaps an inappropriate one being progressed out of sheer desperation. All the other sources had been exhausted.

Actually, we have pretty much exhausted all current remedies, progressed our known strategies to their fiscal and technological limits and if we don't find quick supplements to our supplies desperation will melt down into chaos. Entropy is on the horizon, maybe here already. Folks can forage for food, out-in-the-open sources exist but fresh water in bulk does not. Southern California's streams and lakes are dominated by contaminant-laden urban runoff often vilified as "Toxic Soup."

In retrospect (isn’t hindsight always 20/20, hmmm?) I’ll admit to my readers that my gut reaction was an ignorant and emotional one. I trusted other eco-NGOs to provide analyses that I should have performed independently and with an unbiased mindset myself.

Desalination leadership research and extended hours of personal fact-checking have removed all of my ambivalence and previous hesitancy. I haven’t been converted, I was blindly trustful and reliant in protection groupthink and assessment, reaching conclusions in the dark. And I definitely didn't fully comprehend the urgency, the immediacy of my State's need.

I was curious when I first saw the announcement of the Conference. When I initially signed up for this venue there wasn’t much else but a general description available online. I gambled $275 that it would be worth it---it more than met any expectations I could have foreseen or hoped for.

I knew it was being broken down into two locations, with duplicated Northern (Sacramento) and Southern California (Irvine) agendas to make travel logistics and attendance convenient. So I chose the Irvine gig.

I also (falsely it turns out) assumed that I’d literally be the ODD MAN OUT, the leper, surrounded by bigoted people so totally invested in desalination as to be inflexible, perhaps even belligerent and bellicose towards a protectionist like myself. Thrown to the wolves. I honestly thought I’d be by far the most unwelcome guest in the room, albeit a full paying one.

So aggressive enviro leader with a jaundiced, cynical and skeptical eye, I wrote an email and directly followed up with phone call to Executive Director Ron Davis personally. Both phone number and email were available online, and I didn’t want to spend $275 for yet another “Dog & Pony Show,” what we in the field know happens all too frequently: Boring, one-dimensional, one-sided and monotonous Power Points by proponents with droning, almost somnambulistic speakers.

Turned out that the only drowse-inducing body in the room was the way-up-the-chain, only other environmental rep in attendance to my knowledge. So 2 out of two hundred were classic protectionists, definitely outnumbered 1%-ers. And before you inquire, yes, I HAVE been asked to leave many times, called disruptive and worse.

After 15 years of this, I swear that public agencies and their brethren intentionally procure people who should have taken a speech class or two. Or they’re missing the “Personality Gene.” That didn’t occur, several were refreshing, very lively AND funny, quite a pleasant personal experience that kept the audience attentive.

As the first of many CalDesal surprises, Ron got back to me asap (shock), convinced me that it would not only be a very open forum, that I’d be encouraged to ask the hard questions, but that it WAS going to be very entertaining not to mention cutting edge (awe). >How could I resist after those assurances? He didn't sound wary or suspicious, he sounded glad to hear that someone from my side of the street would attend. "Happy" is not the usual response to the community I represent.

Day 1: CalDesal Chair Shawn Dewane makes opening remarks

As CalDesal Chair Shawn Dewane promised in the spiffy brochure, this Southern California twin to the previous week's conference held in Sacramento delivered: “…an array of topics related to desalination policy, with in-depth discussions on the intersection of science and policy, how policy can affect project feasibility and implementation… exciting program with speakers well-suited to put the issues and challenges in context.”

Over the course of 1½ days, from Monday, October 29---Tuesday, the 30th at the noon buzzer, my personal education was furthered exponentially, and even for a professional in the field of environment as I am, it bordered on info-overload. I was fascinated, stimulated, intrigued, stimulated and overwhelmed by the spectrum of speakers at the finish line. Wow, this is what finishing a marathon must feel like!

Chair Dewane’s written vow was repeated in his animated, opening verbal remarks and if someone felt cheated, marginalized, unfulfilled or left out at the end, then they had to be brain dead---And obviously in the wrong venue.Broken down into five (5) panels with professionals in the field acting as moderators, ED Ron Davis did a superlative job of organizing this No Cal/So Cal dual series.

The logistics alone must have been daunting, with not only industry experts but local, state and federal regulatory panelists migrating over time and distance in synch. We sat in 6-person clusters at tables but were not isolated or sequestered from the panelists.

A close lady friend of mine has that “everything happens for a reason, there are no coincidences” belief system. Being a Mr. Spock kind of guy, I have quite a different process, I’d like to think more logical, operating mentality. My personal brain housing group jury is still out on that one.

So who is the first person I run into after checking in very early on Monday, walking within the foyer section of the hotel? Ron Davis.I’d never even laid eyes on him before that day, I tried but couldn’t find a picture of him online to facilitate recognition when I finally did. Kismet, it was like we’d met long ago and were picking up a chat where we’d left off. Ron was personable, put me at ease immediately….After all, I’m from the side usually seen as the whacko fringie enemy.

"Desal Role in a Balanced Portfolio": Moderator Kevin Price
R-L Seated: Mike Dunbar, Paul S., Bob Yamada and Bill Kocher

Mesa Water District GM Paul Schoenberger
Ironic Source: John Earl

I got ZERO bad vibes, no "Dude, you're harshing my buzz" either, which helped set the civil tone and welcome feeling I had throughout. In fact, EVERY time I interacted with an attendee I wasn’t shunned, shut up or marginalized.

Paul Schoenberger (GM Mesa Water District) and Chair Dewane stood out as gents beyond reasonable expectations. Many of these industry folk know of my controversial, confrontational activist history and that of my NGO.

My reservations and concerns about desalination weren’t suppressed or disrespected nor were my hard questions left unanswered or avoided. Except once, and that was by a fellow activist and purported strident protectionist: Joe Geever, Water Programs Manager of the Surfrider Foundation.

The Conference wasn’t limited to ocean desalination, controversial in its own right. The drawing down or diversion and drafting of streams, estuaries and aquifers for reclamation, treatment and reuse was also on the table and it too is problematic: It jeopardizes high value aquatic and riparian habitat by altering base flow and/or fresh water depth regimes, especially those metrics determined necessary to sustain threatened and endangered species. This was discussed at length by several regulatory panelists.

"Desalination Science" Panel: Standing Tom Pankratz
R to L Seated: Phil Lauri, Gary Crisp, Dr. Scott Jenkins & Dr. Dave Meyer

People have an emotional attachment to the word "Desalination" and define it singly when it's manifold, when it's really about three (3) different strategies or logistical locations: (1) Seawater (coastal), (2) Estuaries (mixing zones of fresh and oceanic) plus (3) Inland areas with brackish water. Increasing population stresses are changing the desalination pursuit landscape.

My knowledge curve about such upstream removal or reduction of high TDS (Totally Dissolved Solids like salt) for irrigation purposes began 12 years ago, so that aspect I was already aware of in detail……at least until I attended this conference. Even those topics and strategies, I learned, are more complicated than I previously believed. It was the equivalent of graduate school, glad I’d done some homework or I would’ve been totally lost.

My ocean desalination arc is shorter: I began a more intense research mode about 1 year ago when two (2) projects in the OC came up on my radar screen. I recently began attending more workshops, interviewing more insiders, and started writing about them.

Scott Maloni of Poseidon

My background research in advance of the Conference was greatly assisted and enhanced by prior personal interviews, homework really, with Scott Maloni (VP of Poseidon) and lead for the Huntington Beach ocean desalination, already-mentioned Paul Schoenberger, and Shawn…Shawn, by the way, is an EverReady®, super-energetic alpha dog kind of guy.

The sheer number of committees and boards Shawn voluntarily serves on must bring him home exhausted at midnight each day. Where he finds time for a personal career and family is beyond me. Indefatigable. GOOGLE® it and his name should come up.

Although not a panelist, Karl Seckel, Assistant GM of the umbrella Municipal Water District of OC was a tremendous resource---both online, on the phone and at the Conference during Q & A.

Here's Karl trying to explain how it all works to a journalist onsite at the Dana Point (Doheny Beach) slant well pilot/demo project (South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination):

Karl Seckel in his element(s) Source: SOCOD archives

Of tremendous further value to me, someone with a strong eco-protectionist background, was CalDesal’s decision to spend the final ½ day highlighted by regulatory panelists and their complaints, insights and guidance regarding compliance. After a day of project consultants and proponents, that governmental oversight and reality gut check, those prescription and restriction aspects discussed on Tuesday was quite sobering.

Of special note was the Q & A leading to the candid and oftentimes vibrant exchanges between the panelists themselves plus between the panelists and audience. These are leaders in their field, and they all have strong opinions based on review not emotion. There was no glossing over or avoidance when attendees engaged. Even the sometimes painfully honest and amusing repartee among attendees during these conversations was informational value-add.

I’m uncertain and unsure how refreshing that interactive dynamic was for the others, but as an NGO leader it personalized, made more subjective, relaxed and also humanized the technically complex subject matter before us. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ringmaster Ron intended that to happen.

As warned by a longtime industry insider, the breaks, meals and sidebars were almost as informative and productive. Yes, networking via business card exchanges per usual, but also bluntly productive. No one pulled punches that I either eavesdropped upon or engaged in dialogue.

I know that these conferences are supposed to be intellectually and scientifically objective, perhaps even stark and cold to the untrained eye and ear, but I found that several moderators and panelists stood out in my mind.

It would be unfair to readers and a breach of good manners and favoritism to cite them individually so I won’t. Confidence is NOT a bad thing, and just as in any eco-system or food chain the alphas know who and what they are, so do the betas and drones if only intuitively.

Speaking of Mother Nature sorting things out, two species that were present eventually provided some vexation if not outright comic relief: John Earl of Huntington Beach, editor of numerous online blogs like Surf City Voice is an outspoken pariah of desalination, and like said Joe Geever. John showed up on Day 2, as a non-paying media reporter. That is if you call the ranting, soaring astronomical word-count unfocused diatribes John produces reporting.

Huntington Beach John (The Duke of Desalination) Earl
Photo by Yours Truly

So score another one for CalDesal---They didn’t mushroom the gig, firewall participants, didn’t hide, avert or censor, 100% complete transparency intact although nobody forced them to, and they didn’t play that informational silo gig on either man.

Both men have been sarcastic, vociferous and aggressive opponents of the Huntington Beach project by Poseidon. They bonded a while back I guess, half-heartedly and belatedly accept the Dana Point one (South Orange Coastal Ocean Desalination) but with nebulous, veiled caveats and reservations. Readers might want to refer to my previous columns on desalination for background information.

That John worships Joe is obvious, he fawningly sat down at Joe’s audience table shared with RBF staff and then confabbed intensely. He waited while Joe went up to the panelist’s dais and fumbled his way through. More of that in a minute. Inexplicably, John left right afterward Joe finished, he asked no questions, yet there was his ample opportunity to do so, to confront the Evil Empire he hates. Maybe he doesn't like the limelight but enjoys skewering, safely sniping from afar by the comfort of the home fire.

I reconned and figured out who he was (never seen his picture either), introduced myself and he gleefully let me take his picture---Then he made tracks, was history and outta there.

Why did he come? Who knows, two weeks later there’s nothing at his multiple blog sites, so much for a timely investigative report on a burning, hot topic (for him) issue. John, can you say "There was no dirt to dig up?" I knew you could. Now isn't that special?

Environmental confrontations can become long, protracted and bitter polarizing disputes. If readers don't know it, the unwritten rule is that everyone pretty much follows the "Hard on issues, soft on people" aphorism. Keep on the subject, personal ad hominem attacks should be avoided lest they sidetrack or diminish.

John and his Huntington Beach, "self-annointed posse comitatus" don't honor that tradition, so neither will I herein. They have cast, unleashed a tidal wave of aspersions directed towards Paul and Shawn that, if they were lesser, low-class types, would have resulted in massive awards via slander and libel suits. John and his BFF don't care a whit about destroying lives or careers, it's all about getting attention and online celebrityhood.

Joe Geever The Sailor Man
Source: Surf City Voice

But Joe (Say it ain’t so) Geever was frankly a mess. It was painfully embarrassing as a fellow NGO rep to watch and listen to him. Apparently, he thinks that a semi-clean SF logo t-shirt, scruffy plus baggy jeans and beat up worn tennis shoes is the uniform of the day.

Not sure if he even shaved due to his slovenly bearded appendage. Is this a fellow surfie or a meth lab freak biker from the TV series “Sons of Anarchy”? Who wears surf grunge chic fashion to such venues unless it's smarmy wardrobe snobbery? Dress DOWN for success, is that what the SF preaches?

He looks a lot like Popeye meets Ho Chi Minh. I must be out of touch with what’s hip. And in fact he is a sailor, okay a fisherman by trade, you expected him to pull out some spinach and a pipe. Totally MIA, groms, dudes and dudettes. It’s just common courtesy and pro forma to make an attempt at minimum business casual attire when everyone else is wearing such or even more formal clothes. You dress on par, respectfully and commensurately.

Joe's Uncle No?
Source: Wikipedia

Hey Joe? Earth to Joe? Wake up! Like surfing, all of the basics about etiquette should have been learned already. It’s not like your NGO is starving, quite to the contrary. After running into Joe one week later at the National Water Research Institute's smaller but definitely similar interactive workshop on Drought Response, I now understand his problem: That garb is all he owns (or chooses to wear), he doesn’t need a closet just a duffel bag and a sea chest. He sashayed into that event, sat in the back for an hour and asked nothing. He came. He saw. He left. Wonder how many billable hours that incurred?

Department of If-You-Thought-It-Couldn’t-Get-Worse-Well-It-Did:

Joe mumbled his way through a half-ass rambling screech during his panel, he seemed disoriented and disconnected when fielding spontaneous, unscripted or unrehearsed questions. He was unable to answer specific inquiries. He danced me around for 3-4 minutes, asked if he’d answered my questions, and when I said emphatically “No” he just laughed derisively. He was not prepared. Disappointment is an understatement.

I inquired politely about the SF’s strategy of procuring (leveraging) gross sums via Intervenor Compensation (See: over desalination projects. Dismissive to a fellow protectionist seemed bizarre to me, but then he upped the ante, he played dodgeball with a very highly placed and powerful public official who prefaced his questions by identifying himself as a long time member of the SF.

This official (and practicing attorney himself no less) asked why the SF kept litigating and losing over and over, using (abusing?) membership dues and donations to do so. He called on the SF representative to give him an accounting, the reasoning behind many non-tangential lawsuits.

It was apparent that the SF has lost track of its mission statement and goals, it’s no longer about groovy surf breaks and clean ocean water to paddle around in, it’s about keeping the SF staff occupied, underwriting junkets to exotic places and their pay secured plus benefit/retirement packages intact. Fluffed product portfolios as PR to its unwary contributors.

Surfrider Foundation Board Meeting?
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Worser, as Keith Olbermann would say, Joe admitted that he wasn’t much of a surfer and knew almost nothing about desalination. He said that he doesn’t believe there’s proof that desalination is necessary, but as he knows nothing about it just whose opinion were we hearing and apparently his is based upon nothing? Was this an episode of Seinfeld, you know, the hit series based upon nothingness?

So, why was he and not some other SF member there to do so? That was never divulged. Which begs me to ask a variation on Ross Perot’s Vice Presidential choice in his self-deprecation comment back in the 1992 debates: Who or what IS Joe Geever and why WAS he there? The SF sent a red-shirt freshman where they should have substituted a more savvy, plugged in and knowledgeable veteran.

Worser Part II would be: Why does the SF have a Water Programs Manager that doesn’t know his ass from his elbow about the very things they’re criticizing AND litigating? He could barely manage a complete sentence let alone reveal any expertise about the topic. Joe admitted that the SF outsourced their legal and biological consultant work for desalination, paid non-employee advisors and then billed at the going rate ($450/hour). And he said that the SF supported the Monterey project---Hey, you would too if it made your NGO over 1/2 of a million $$$. Strange definition of support, huh?

Personally, I don’t get it. The guy gets preferential treatment, gets the courtesy and empowerment of sitting on a prestigious panel by a highly professional and prestigious consortium that could have just ignored him, blown him off and this was his non-profit’s shining knight?

All of that expertise in the room and a man who seemed empty-headed about the subject, admitted no basic knowledge of the subject, who represented a highly prestigious and instant brand name recognition group shot blanks: As in blanks stares, vacuous and muttering, non-responsive answers, and how much exactly is this guy getting paid?

I want a job that doesn’t require any understanding or comprehension of the subject, the only requisite is that I show up, you know, just mail it in. As I pointed out in my Intervenor Compensation column, the SF has been pulling in hundreds of thousands of $$$ up in Monterey alone, can’t they budget a few technical classes for their directors, make it a prerequisite before sending them out into the emerging desalination strategy world?

If I seem particularly brutal or harsh, well, as eco-protectionists we can’t have a hypocritical double standard. We hold others in related fields to a very high bar, to both moral and ecological codes of conduct plus regulatory compliance metrics. Muttering lip service, being flippant and half-assing it fails that advocacy or sincerity litmus test.

CalDesal did their part, allowed the SF a bully pulpit and venue to explain their intransigence and opposition. They didn’t stand and deliver. CalDesal didn’t have to waive fees and feed him for free. Instead they got an uninformed schlub who slouched his way around the lush room, kind of sleep-walked through his presentation and then went into the tank at Q & A crunch time.

It needs repeating: We wouldn’t be looking down the barrel of tremendous water shortages in every usage category if self-described enviros began pleading for more planned parenting and controlled borders: Our entire population expansion just creates more parched throats. The incredible influx of illegal aliens of all colors coupled with that growth curve has a carrying capacity (a definite limit). Simple biological constructs can tell you that yet these Siamese twins are the unacknowledged gorillas in the room. Have anyone ever seen or heard of NGOs like the SF acknowledge this controversial yet actual reality?

"Desalination Implementation Challenges": Standing Paul Findley
Seated R to L: Dawn Guendert, Joe Monaco, Jeff Mosher and Ron Wildermuth

You ever see them promote slow, limited or ZERO growth in our infrastructure, ever see them or the other green banner waivers promoting fewer babies or escorting illegals to the fence? Know why? Because they end up becoming yet more dues paying $$$ lifetime members and it's not very PC, that’s why!

And calling desalination private taking or pilfering of public resources is idiotic, downright myopic. We live in a capitalist society, no greed isn't good, but ingenuity to provide life's most basic need (H2O) merits reward. Try praying and believing government can solve this problem alone and your tap will run dry while you're on your knees waiting. And fainting from dehydration. Capitalist incentive and motivation? That's how America works. Jeez, that's how the real world works now, the Earth has returned to being flat in that sense.

Demonizing desalination is easy. Spend the time, you'll understand its role in the water supply algorithm and the nuances of its implementation, the humungous existing regulatory hurdles already in place to insure compliance oversight. Tracking only requires persistent diligence. This is actually a simple supply-and-demand formulaic equation. Guaranteed land-based supplies are disappearing yet the demand curve is exponential. Something has to give. Soon.

Go online. Almost weekly, new desalination patents are filed, emerging and innovative scientists (yes, most are driven by fame and $$$ rewards) roll out improved technologies that both recover a greater % of the water AND reduce energy costs/demands. Staunch opponents like the SF and coat-tailing cabalists like John Earl try to appear vigilant but are seriously lacking in the self-education and due diligence departments.

It’s Pollyanna, outright irresponsible to push for, to falsely allege that more efficient devices, more conservation, more advanced treatment of wastewater as the 100% solution and silver bullet to address those increasing demands. Not one panelist, not one regulator, not one person other than Joe Geever among the attendees I met believed that desalination won’t have some role to play in the world’s future portfolio.

Desalination alarmists often point to advanced wastewater treatment plus urban runoff capturing and cleansing as a magic wand. What they don't tell the public is that the briny waste from desalination, for the most part, merely reintroduces metals and TDS back into the same environs it took them from.

Waste treatment plants or urban runoff drool diversions do NOT remove or reduce the horribly incredible gamut of mutagenic and carcinogenic contaminants in them. They only recover 60% of what's taken in as "influent" anyway. Their waste disposal methods or dispersion discharges of "affluent" is astronomically expensive and even more eco-degrading than desalination. You know, the Toxic Soup that destroys ecosystems and jeopardizes human life?

Wheeling it from Point A to Point B, a canard bait-and-switch if there ever was one, to only accomplish reintroducing it back into our ecosystems is the feeble lesser of intelligent, cost or risk benefit strategies. That's the equivalent of switching an IV bag with a colostomy bag on a bedridden intensive care patient. Calling it "recycling" is a joke because it's a closed pollution loop.

The build-out bill necessary to do such reclamation, the hundreds of millions of $$$ needed to buy the land and upgrade or improve existing facilities would be borne by consuming ratepayers. Just how much more stress and strain on our recovering economy would such policies require?

And isn't it funny, government is slow, is untrusted as never before, not only broke but broken yet the John Earl's, the Joe Geevers and attendant Chicken Littles think that's the cavalry? Who in their right mind believes, or even wants government to lead us to infinite water supplies, to safe and healthy water for our farmers and families?

Rising sea levels that will also expand brackish estuaries and coastal saltwater intrusion are ironic; this climate change supply side of the desalination equation is a growth industry, there’ll be more than enough salt water to extract for every country. It’s not a matter of “IF,” it’s really down to “WHEN.”

We're at the tilting point, the crisis is happening before our eyes, ignoring it is stupid and myopic. I say bring it on, we need assured “Clean Water Now.”

Turned out that the only drowse-inducing body in the room was the way-up-the-NGO-food chain Surfrider Foundation geek, the only other environmental rep in attendance to my knowledge. So 2 out of two hundred were classic protectionists, definitely outnumbered 1%-ers. And before you inquire, yes, I  HAVE been asked to leave similar venues many times, called disruptive and worse.

Go to this link for the presentations that CalDesal has posted at its website:

PS: Special thanks to CalDesal Conference photos provided by ED Ron Davis

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FYI: If a project near you has some interesting enviro-aspect(s) that you think is/are worthy of coverage and our readers attention, feel free to contact me with a very brief synopsis. Water-related “Blue Interventions” are my specialty!


Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger Bütow and his OMO columns are written exclusively for Salem-News-com. Born and raised in the LA Harbor area, son of a German immigrant father, he moved to Orange County in 1965 and has lived in Laguna Beach since 1972. In 1998, he began his professional career in environmental review processes (CEQA, NEPA, MND, MND and EIR/EIS). He's a rare mix of cross-trained builder, writer and consultant as he brings his extensive construction experiences dating back to 1972 into his eco-endeavors. He has tremendous field and technical expertise in successful watershed restorations, plus wastewater, urban runoff, water quality monitoring/improvements and hydrologic mechanisms. He's built everything from commercial spas to award-winning private residences, and provided peer review and consultant analyses for single homes, subdivisions and upscale resorts.

View articles written by Roger Butow Read Roger's full biography on the Staff Page

His resumé is extensive, try an online GOOGLE search of his personal journey and historical accomplishments. His consultation fees are reasonable and if you've got a major project that alarms you, that needs creative intervention, then he's your man. His credentials and "CV" can be provided upon request.

Contact him at his office: (949) 715.1912 or drop him an email:



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