Carlsbad desalination plant locked down amid coronavirus pandemic

Phil Diehl
Workers assemble pipes for the seawater filtration system at the Carlsbad Desalination Plant during construction in 2015.  (Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune)

As of Friday, 10 workers are quarantined inside the Carlsbad desalination plant for the next three weeks, monitoring and adjusting gauges and switches, watching for leaks, and doing whatever is needed to safeguard San Diego County’s only significant local source of drinking water.

“We asked some employees to be locked down at the plant for 21 days to isolate the risk of infection,” said Gilad Cohen, chief executive of IDE Americas, the global company that operates the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant and others around the world.

The request for volunteers was a precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “mission critical” employees will work 12-hour shifts, sleep in rented recreational vehicles in the parking lot, and be resupplied with fresh food left for them at the plant’s gate. They will be furnished with washers and dryers to do their own laundry, and the desalination plant’s kitchen and cafeteria are available to them.

“There is a whole routine of lab sampling throughout the plant to ensure the quality of the water in production and monitor discharge into the ocean,” Cohen said. “All these routines must remain in place, and that’s a big part of the work on a daily basis.”

The Carlsbad plant began operating in 2015 and produces 50 million gallons of desalinated seawater a day, enough for about 400,000 people, or 10% of the potable water distributed by the San Diego County Water Authority. The locally produced water helps reduce the area’s dependence on imported water, which comes from Northern California and the Colorado River.

The water authority and its 24 member agencies have taken additional steps to ensure the coronavirus pandemic does not affect the safe delivery of water throughout the county. Last week, like most cities in the region, it activated its emergency operations center and reviewed plans for member agencies to assist one other should key personnel be unable to work.

“In these unprecedented times, the region’s water agencies are collaborating in complete solidarity to perform our vital mission of providing safe and reliable water supplies,” said Sandra L. Keri, general manager of the Water Authority. “We are taking strategic, precautionary steps to ensure the region’s water security.”

Normally, the Carlsbad plant operates with about 40 employees who come and go daily. Some of those employees work at the offices of Poseidon Water, the plant’s manager, about two blocks away.

More than 10 people volunteered for the lockdown “no questions asked,” Cohen said.

Between their 12-hour shifts, employees can do as they please, but they can’t leave the premises and their only contact with families will be electronic.

The shelter-in-place plan was developed in about 10 days to meet the rapidly unfolding coronavirus situation, he said. What happens after the initial 21 days is yet to be decided.

“These are exceptional times, and there is not a guidebook,” Cohen said. “We are trying to come up with a plan.”

IDE Americas also operates a desalination plant on the California coast at Santa Barbara. Cohen said that plant is smaller and there were no plans to place employees there on lockdown.

Diehl writes for San Diego Union-Tribune