Sounds like a great idea. JFK once said that it would be a greater achievement than putting a man on the moon, and most polls have shown a 70 percent acceptance rate of the idea.
So what is the problem?
The corollary to JFK’s statement would be “when economically and environmentally feasible” and therein is the challenge. However, the first question that should be asked is do we need ocean water desalination (often called desal) in California and would it hurt or harm the environment compared to its alternatives?
In 2006 there were 29 proposals for ocean desal projects along the California coast, with many attached to old coastal power plants, now there are only nine. While industry proponents blame California’s protective environmental regulations and a few environmentalists’ opposition, there were three main issues that stalled the proposals.
First, despite the State Desal Task Force convened by legislation, there is no consensus on a regulatory order or state-wide direction. So each proposal lumbered through the multi-agency process.
That’s as it should be because if there is a large scale desal plant built in California it will be the first on the Pacific coast and largest in the Western Hemisphere. The first proponent out of the gate was Poseidon, a private corporation from Connecticut that failed with its first desal project – the largest in the nation at 25 million gallons a day – in Tampa Bay, Florida, and then proposed two more plants, each with twice that capacity, one in Huntington Beach in Orange County and the other in Carlsbad in north San Diego county.
While working hard to gather political support for its southern California desal projects, Poseidon failed to respond to repeated information requests by the Coastal Commission or to follow its permitting guidelines. Meanwhile, local opposition grew and water agencies weighed into issues of the marine environment, which they little understood, and were forced to navigate California’s complex and arcane water supply laws as well.
Second, conceived in a time of drought, the most recent crop of desal proposals depended on a fear of limited water supply while demand was high for new development. This was especially true where desal plants were proposed on the coast, thus allowing entry points for previously undeveloped areas with limited water supply.
With the collapse of the global economy, developments now sit idle and the need for desal as a redundant water supply for more growth is being questioned. Promoted as an offset to water pumped over the Tehachapis and therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the opposite is true. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) states in its subsidy contract that the water produced by desal would not curtail deliveries of any imported water source. Rather blood would be let on the floors of the MWD boardroom before anyone at MWD would give up any sacrosanct water rights.
Furthermore, the promises that these proposed desal plants would offset water taken from the SF Bay Delta turned out to be false. Given the long history of getting water back to fish and the environment, there is no regulatory process to make that happen. Just look at the 20 years of litigation that has taken place over Mono Lake.
Third: first things first. There are untapped and cost-effective local water resources that must be developed and that have environmental benefits, unlike desal, such as maximizing serious water conservation and water reclamation, capturing and treating urban and storm-water runoff, expanding now legal grey water and rainwater cistern systems, and fixing leaky infrastructure or pipes.
Combine that with a systems approach with watershed management and we begin to get to the point that Australia, Spain, and Israel did before they invested in desal – which meant reducing per capita water demand to 30-50 gallons per day. Compare that to 174 gallons for California as a whole and 121 gallons for Los Angeles.
Many areas across the state, including Los Angeles and Long Beach, have had serious reductions in water demand and eliminated the need for desal—it’s not in Los Angeles’ 20 year supply plan and Long Beach is reconsidering after careful research.
California spent $50 million of Prop. 50 water bond monies on researching this issue and while not all the grant results have been revealed the emerging consensus is that proponents’ promise of a technological breakthrough that makes desal feasible or necessary hasn’t been realized. This is a case of its not the technology, stupid, it is the lack economic considerations and available capital.
And then it rain, and rained, and continues to rain. Reservoirs filled and spilled. Snow pack reached record levels in the Rockies, from where a portion of our imported supply originates. If we had only realized the potential to capture rainwater and redistribute stormwater back into our depleted underground aquifers, this would have been a great winter to replenish the bank of locally stored water.
A quick historical perspective shows that ocean water desal plans come and go in California. In the 60s and 70s it was twin nuclear power plant islands to be built offshore and provide all the water we needed and a small plant that was sent from the navel base in Point Loma to Guantanamo in Cuba.
In the 80s and 90s it was the Santa Barbara plant that was built in the middle of the six-year drought and was idled before it ever was connected by El Niño spring. While it is still being paid for it is more cost effective not to run it.
At Catalina Island in the late 80s a small plant was built as a back up to allow a developer to build condos. It sat idle for many years until Southern California Edison took it over, and in the only place where they sell water it takes 70 percent of the island’s electricity to produce 20 percent of its water.
Internationally, where there is often no other choice, limits have been reached but with a price. Australia is now deeply indebted for billions for plants that sit idle and have been flooded. Even the Middle East is having problems with desal with huge demands for energy and subsidized water in Saudi Arabia and discharge levels that increase salinity and therefore energy demands in enclosed areas.
Ocean desal is promoted heavily by a cabal of membrane manufacturers, including GE, power plants operators hoping to keep their old fish-killing machines operating, water agencies looking for large capital projects built with some else’s money, engineering consultants and even Las Vegas.
But the bloom is off the issue. It looks good on the outside but once you delve into the inside there are problems, like fast food might sound good at the moment of hunger but the results of eating it are negative. Investing in the current crop of desal plants is like buying an old Hummer with today’s gas prices.
Concerned citizens who organized statewide and locally to inform the public and fight the desalination surge can now declare victory and focus back on appropriate multi-benefit local water resources. It does not mean we won’t continue to monitor these projects but to focus on only the fight would validate an issue that, once again, has passed away. After ten years, this time, we should celebrate a successful fight that brought this to the light of day and the fact that California is not ready for ocean desal and it is not ready for us.
There are many other issues around desal including energy intensity, huge marine and fishery impacts and the alternatives, drinking water quality, sea-level rise with industrializing the coast and the true costs of water. Go to the website www.desalresponsegroup.org for more than you would want to know and links to the many references made in this article.
John Earl is the publisher and editor for the Surf City Voice and Poseidon Town. In the late 1980s, he covered local politics for the Huntington Beach News. In 2005, he was a founding member and first president of Residents for Responsible Desal, which he left in 2006 to become editor of the print newspaper, OC Voice.