Ensuring Water Stability During Extraordinary Times: Carlsbad Desalination Plant’s COVID-19 Operation
By Gilad Cohen
The Claude ‘Bud’ Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant (CDP) is the largest seawater desalination plant in the US (see Image 1), producing 50 million gallons of fresh water per day. It supplies enough potable water for approximately 400,000 people, distributed by the San Diego County Water Authority.
CDP, which began operation in 2015, was developed as public-private partnership (PPP) project by Poseidon Water as the developer, working with a consortium of Kiewit-Shea (KSD) as the general contractor and IDE Technologies as designer, technology and process equipment provider.
Immediate action required
The initial impact of COVID-19 first emerged in late February and early March. Working alongside the plant owner, Poseidon Water and IDE took emergency action early on, with the goal of ensuring operational continuity and minimal impact on water delivery. The common objective was making sure the community, local and state governments would have one less problem to worry about, which was water supply security.
Several steps were implemented to ensure uninterrupted water supply: On March 8, the company implemented an essentials-only policy, limiting entrance to the premises of the CDP. On March 19, ahead of California’s governor’s mandate, a full COVID-19 plant shelter-in-place operation plan was implemented, which included:
- A ‘critical-roles-only’ crew of 10 volunteering employees, put in charge of maintenance, operation and lab
- Volunteers sheltering for 21 days on site, in order to minimize all physical contact with the outside world
- Remote support and guidance provided by managers and experts
Determining essential roles
Within three days, the primary entities solidified the plan (see Image 2) and prepared the plant for the volunteers to shelter in place. The COVID-19 response and operation mode needed to include a much leaner team to ensure safety, while minimizing production disruption risks. It was clear from the start that everyone was willing to step up and be of service to the San Diego community during these challenging times. IDE defined key functions and despite the fact many volunteered, 10 employees in critical roles were ultimately selected.
Restructuring operations, maintenance routines and work plan
CDP typically operates with about 40 employees daily, three operators on shift, lab technicians and a large maintenance group. Shift structure is usually 12-hour shifts handled by three operators. In order to reduce assignment load, two operators were assigned to a 12-hour shift, while more work was assigned to the lab technician and maintenance support. Maintenance work and priorities also needed to be redefined. The team included minimal onsite personnel, comprised of an electrician, mechanical technicians and general labor, working seven days a week in eight-hour shifts, plus four hours of on-call availability. Lab technicians continued supporting all monitoring requirements over 12-hour workdays, while conducting sampling routine works.
Lastly, remote monitoring and support by a chief operator was maintained around the clock, including all-teams daily video meetings, in order to evaluate performance, work plan and team morale, which was high on the list of all parties involved. The remote team acted as potential standby to replace the inside team if needed. They worked in the off-site warehouse as needed, provided remote monitoring, support and on-demand guidance from their homes, and also offered remote training and e-learning, to keep staff well-informed on the latest best practices.
Logistics and day-to-day
Twenty-one days of onsite cycles required all the necessary logistics to be addressed ahead of time, including proper accommodation, food and other basic services. Each employee was supplied with their own private RV (see Image 3) for lodging in the plant’s parking lot, providing the staff a quiet space for much-needed rest and recharge during downtime. Food supply was managed through online orders, with outside support provided by management as needed. Purchased and installed for their use, volunteers also had access to washers and dryers, the plant’s break room, cafeteria and showers, with the aim to provide all employees maximum comfort in between shifts.
Safety, legal and compliance
For the CDP, subject to a wide range of regulations and compliance requirements, any modifications needed to be designed collaboratively with the owner, the San Diego County Water Authority and state regulators. At the same time, the need to remain adaptive and responsive to unexpected changes was clear as well. Even under emergency conditions, IDE’s top priority remained zero-compromise over safety, full transparency and tight collaboration. Attentive to the employees’ mental and physical health, management made sure the team used their downtime for proper rest. To ensure smooth and fully-synced operation, ongoing communication with employees, management, corporate, owners and regulators was maintained throughout the shelter-in-place period.
Heartwarming support from the community
The greater San Diego community was kind enough to share hundreds of messages with words of support and gratitude toward the volunteers’ hard work and dedication. This helped keep team morale high during their time at the plant and was greatly appreciated.
What is the ‘secret sauce’ to a successful operation?
First on the list was hard-working and dedicated employees, who volunteered without questions or conditions in order to serve the greater good. Second was fantastic managerial teamwork, which included direct plant management, compliance, HR, finance and legal staff, who confronted new dilemmas and challenges head-on and supported each other throughout the event. Third was smooth and transparent communication with the owner, the county and regulators, demonstrating remarkable support, efficiency and high level of cooperation from all involved parties. Last but not least, the incredible support provided by the community offered a major boost to everyone’s spirits. Despite long shifts, being isolated from the world and disconnected from their families for almost a month at a time, the team never lost sight of its goal, which was to maintain uninterrupted water supply for the greater San Diego community around the clock.
About the author
Gilad Cohen, appointed in 2017 to CEO of IDE Americas, joined IDE in 2009 as Corporate Business Development Manager, responsible for investment evaluations and M&A activity, as well as development of new business platforms in target markets. Prior to IDE, he held the position of Senior Consultant for one of Israel’s leading management consulting firms on business competitive and corporate strategy, where he successfully led business development in Southeast Asia and central eastern Europe. Gilad holds a B.Sc. in computer sciences and an MBA majoring in marketing management (Magna Cum Laude), both from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.