Desalination Should Be Part of California’s Water Future

In California, we seem to be living in the days of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” As Steve Milloy said last week, there’s water, water everywhere, but almost nary a drop to drink.

California has “840 miles of coastline,” tweeted Milloy, the author who is primarily responsible for giving us the phrase “junk science,” and yet there’s still “not enough water.” It is the type of dilemma that can happen “only with ‘progressive’ government,” he added.

“Instead of the $65 billion bullet train to nowhere,” he suggests directing scarce financial resources to the construction of desalination plants.

California is already home to the largest desalination plant in the country. A little more than two years ago, the Claude “Bud” Lewis facility opened in Carlsbad. It cost about $1 billion and produces about 50 million gallons of potable water a day, enough to provide for 7 to 10 percent of the San Diego region’s water needs.

It’s possible that within the not-too-distant future, roughly a dozen California desalination plants will be turning ocean water and brackish water into fresh drinking water.

One could ask: Why this has taken so long? Desalination isn’t next year’s technology. It was nearly 30 years ago, not 30 months ago, that the New York Times reported that ”facing a possible fifth year of sustained drought, communities along the California coast are looking to desalinated ocean or bay water as a way to quench their thirst and water their lawns.”

High costs have had a role in the slow development of desalination. But technological advancements tend to bring down costs. What they can’t do, however, is reduce the same reactionary bottleneck that has constrained and, in some cases, shut down decades of infrastructure expansion and standard-of-living progress in California — radical and runaway environmentalism.

The Carlsbad plant, for instance, was initially conceived in 1993. But environmental groups tied it up in court with at least five lawsuits before it could open.  A similar plant that is being developed in Huntington Beach – and which won approval from the California State Lands Commission last year – has now been bogged down in litigation from environmental groups.

Santa Barbara built a desalination plant about the same time the idea was brought up in San Diego County. It didn’t last long, though. The Washington Post reported in 1992 that, “it was cranked up for testing and quickly shut down when the rain suddenly returned.” The drought, however, also returned. So, in 2015 the city decided to restart the facility. Two years later, the first drop of desalinated ocean water was introduced into the system. Despite environmentalist opposition, TakePart, a social-justice digital magazine, reported in 2016 that environmental groups had “largely resigned themselves to its revival.”

Kira Redmond, executive director of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, told TakePart that groups such as hers “believe that any other alternative is better than desalination.” That might be so. But these groups also oppose many of the alternatives and have been active in keeping water from flowing to where it’s needed. They’ve successfully agitated for restricted pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and have tried shut down a project that would tap Mojave desert water to quench large-scale consumer thirst.

No one is going to claim that desalination will on its own solve California’s water issues. But with another drought predicted to begin this year, the process will increasingly become a factor in solving the problem. Desalination will do far more to fix what ails this state than a high-speed rail.

Kerry Jackson is senior fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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