After 20 years of planning, the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant began operations on Monday, churning out 50 million gallons of drinkable water each day. The plant takes in 100 million gallons of seawater a day from the adjacent Agua Hedionda Lagoon and puts it through a multiphasic process to remove particulates and impurities before using reverse osmosis to create fresh drinking water. The concentrated brine leftover is then diluted with seawater and piped back out to sea. The massive $1 billion public-private project was designed with energy efficiency in mind, but some critics continue to oppose the plant for its yet unknown environmental impact.

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The largest desalination project in the Western Hemisphere is a partnership between Poseidon Water and the San Diego County Water Authority, and was perhaps constructed faster than any other desalination plant this size. Supporters are touting the plant as a model for other areas of the state, while critics argue that a desalination plant of this size was not what the community needed at this point in time.

Related: 10 Solutions to the California drought

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As California’s drought continues to plague the southern part of the state, clean water from the desalination plant will be distributed throughout San Diego county and reportedly provide drinking water to as many as 300,000 people. Prior to its opening, the enormous plant was criticized as being an energy hog, but officials claim its energy efficient processes allow the plant to run on half the energy other plants of the same capacity would require. That technology reportedly saves 146 million kilowatt-hours of energy each year, which is the equivalent of 9,000 cars.

With the plant now up and running, questions about the plant’s environmental impact remain unanswered, and some skeptics—like the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit working to protect the world’s oceans—continue to voice opposition to the project. In a statement, the organization says desalination “should be the last tool in the tool box, not the first.” Further, Surfrider claims the plant is not the appropriate solution to water shortages in the region, and that it is not the right size or location to effectively respond to the drought.

Via Discovery

Images via Carlsbad Desalination Plant