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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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Much of that conservation and reuse came through programs sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which manages the flow of imported water.

On January 26, Metropolitan reduced its conservation budget to just $10 million – about 1 percent of its total budget – for the coming fiscal year beginning in July. Last year, the southern California water agency spent about $20 million and the year before roughly $54 million in conservation rebates.

The agency, meanwhile, has pledged nearly bottomless funding to water districts with working desalination plants. A report by the Public Education Center’s DCBureau.org published last year analyzed how these incentive funds amounted to taxpayer subsidies.

Metropolitan has already committed up to $350 million over 25 years to Carlsbad – given the plant produces as planned – and a virtual blank check for additional plants to come. The incentive amounts to $250 per acre-foot of fresh water produced.

“We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on conservation and recycling projects,” said Bob Muir, Metropolitan spokesman. “We conserve and recycle and cleanup groundwater that produces more than a million acre-feet of water per year. That’s more than the water used by cities of Los Angeles, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay area.”

West Basin water officials, like many others along the coast, are looking to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a desalination plant to supplement around 10 percent of the region’s water needs. The district has already spent more than $21 million on two pilot projects over the past 10 years.

At a demonstration plant in Redondo Beach opened in October, visitors can see an underwater video of fish swimming past the in-take pipes and educational displays about making desalination more feasible. Yet, according to West Basin, plans for a full-scale plant are still undecided. Collins said the district wants a plant capable of producing 20 million gallons per day, but a location has not been chosen.

“We want to double our recycling and conservation and add a little bit of ocean desal,” said Collins, adding the district would own the plant while contracting major functions.  

Desalination is not new in California. Any water reuse facility or groundwater remediation likely uses the same technology. And even large-scale plants were considered periodically in decades past.

Several efforts failed to materialize. Others were built but rarely needed. In 1998, Santa Barbara built a desalination plant, which now sits idle because it is too expensive. Recent desalination proposals, too, have been temporary shelved as conservation measures are paying off.

Proposed plants in Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo are being questioned. In Long Beach, where local officials have been considering a desalination plant, conservation steps have brought per capita water consumption down to about 100 gallons per day.

“It’s not making as much sense to them now,” said Conner Everts, director of the Desal Response Group opposed to desalination. “There’s no sense of priorities. They just don’t make sense to run. I’ve been working on water issues for 30 years. I’ve watched our per capita use slowly drop. And we know we aren’t capturing and re-using as much as we should.”

Public risks, investors benefit

The price of desalinated water varies depending largely on the cost of energy. It can average double or even quadruple the current price counties and cities pay for imported water in California. As desalination gets more efficient and the price of water keeps rising, supporters say those price lines will eventually cross. Wherever they cross, the price will be high.

 
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