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Desalination: Panacea for Our Water Crisis or Dangerous Boondoggle?

California is trying to solve its water crisis with a huge push for ocean desalination, but opponents claim its too expensive and dangerous for the environment.

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But analysts at the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, say California farms and households could do a lot more to conserve water.

In parts of Southern California, up to 70 percent of all household water is used outdoors, mostly to water lawns, and an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater drains into the ocean each year.

In California, per capita water use still hovered around 176 gallons per day in 2005, according to the latest estimates by the State Water Resources Control Board.

By contrast, in Australia where ocean desalination plants are up and running in nearly every major city along the coast, consumers reduced their water use to about 40 gallons per day before turning to the costly alternative.

A 2003 report by the Pacific Institute found California could save up to 30 percent of its residential water measured in 2000 mostly by imposing national plumbing code standards established in 1992. Those standards call for low-flow toilets and showerheads and more efficient clothes washers – far less expensive steps than multi-million dollar desalination plants. Other options such as rain barrels, cisterns and native landscapes also help reduce demand. “These are by no means cutting edge technologies,” said Heather Cooley, a Pacific Institute policy analyst.

Another study in 2009 found that California farmers, who receive 70 percent of the state’s overall water supply, could save up to 16 percent – around 5 million acre-feet per year – by adjusting irrigation techniques.

“That’s water you wouldn’t have to withdraw in the first place,” said Cooley, adding that the changes would be greatest in dry months and would also result in healthier plants and less fertilizers and pesticides. “It does suggest that it’s a very effective mechanism for dealing with drought and, in the long run, helping us address climate change.”

In 2009, California passed a state water plan to conserve 20 percent by 2020. The law provides greater incentives for farmers to conserve water, but experts say it won’t be enough

“There are certainly a lot of barriers to conservation and efficiency. One of them is the low price of water,” Cooley said.

Unlike consumer prices, agricultural water prices are less affected by shortages. Contracts are often set for years at a time and the costs are even more subsidized than residential systems. The new law will require water agencies to measure how much water farmers are using, but it will not enforce any conservation standards.

Sporadic reports in recent years of California farmers letting their fields lay fallow often has more to do with water being cut off due to drought rather than the price of water becoming too high.

A drop in the bucket

Ocean desalination is one way to relieve water pressure on California agriculture, said Shoenberger, who heads CalDesal.

“With an increase in population and increase in water needs in California, desalination is a great potential alternative along with the others for getting local water that’s clean, safe and reliable,” Shoenberger said. “A lot of the inland and agriculture areas would love to see urban California reducing their reliance on the Delta and the inland streams.”

In many cases, conservation has relieved the pressure to build expensive desalination plants where experts realize they are not needed, but supporters say those efforts are running out of steam.

In greater Los Angeles County, water consumption has dropped 15 percent in the past year, according to the West Basin Municipal Water District. The district imports two-thirds of its water today, which it wants to cut in half by 2020. It  also manages a water recycling facility in El Segundo that turns wastewater into 30 million gallons of fresh water daily.

 
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