03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting More Out of the Men's Room

The Metropolitan Water District is considering two competing projects to provide Southern California an extra fifty million gallons of freshwater per day. These two projects, however, take very different approaches toward addressing the problem of limited freshwater supplies in this arid region.

For one project, Poseidon Resources wants to build a desalination facility in the San Diego area to tap the ocean for its seemingly limitless supply of water. For the other project, Coastal Restoration Advocates wants to replace almost half a million bathroom urinals in Southern California with waterless models.

Both projects promise the same 50 million gallons of water per day. Yet the projects have very different consequences.

As a basic starting point, if MWD is going to spend ratepayer money on water projects, those projects should protect the public and the environment. Any such project also should complement state priorities, including reducing greenhouse gases, protecting marine life, conserving energy, and promoting water security. So, should California look to the ocean or to the men's room for more water? Simple comparison makes the choice clear.

Poseidon Resources' $550 million Carlsbad desalination plant will require 30 megawatts of new power to force saltwater through a high-tech filter, creating up to 57 MGD of highly concentrated wastewater, which Poseidon proposes to dilute with another 197 MGD of seawater.

Coastal Restoration's waterless urinals, on the other hand, could eliminate demand for 10 megawatts of power - what some call 10 'negawatts' of energy - and reduce the amount wastewater produced in the region by 50 MGD.

Poseidon estimates its water will cost $1,200 per acre-foot (AF), offset by a $250 per AF subsidy from the Metropolitan Water District as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-free state bonds. This overall cost is about twice what water agencies in the region currently pay for water and even this estimate, with fluctuating energy prices and Poseidon's rising construction costs, seems low.

Coastal Restoration estimates its water will require the same MWD investment of $250 per AF - and nothing more. That investment will allow 455,000 waterless urinals to be provided free of charge to schools, government, and commercial buildings - which will maintain the waterless urinals the same as they do existing urinals. Savings from the waterless urinals also will accrue to the schools, building owners, and public agencies through lower monthly water bills for those who participate.

According to experts, Poseidon's desalted water also poses increased health risks from disinfection byproducts and substances like boron, which are in ocean water and not currently regulated under drinking water standards. The water that waterless urinals will save is the same safe and affordable water that is already supplied to our taps, its just not being wasted in the region's urinals - so it can be used for other things.

Poseidon's efforts are also prone to failure. The company's Tampa Bay plant was five years late, $40 million over budget, and has never delivered the promised 25 MGD. Waterless urinals, meanwhile, are a proven technology with thousands currently in service. Even the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles uses waterless urinals - and during a Lakers game those bathrooms capably handle far more foot-traffic than most bathrooms in Southern California.

The idea of tapping the ocean for limitless supplies of freshwater is attractive, but it is not good business when so much freshwater can still be saved so easily.

The Metropolitan Water District Board of Directors will meet on November 9 and 10 to decide whether they should guarantee Poseidon this massive ratepayer subsidy. But if we really need to find more water for Southern California, where should MWD look?

They should start by looking in the men's room. Otherwise, we literally are just pissing our precious water away.