With more than 800 miles of coastline and a great big ocean out there, California shouldn’t be always be scrambling for water as if it were in the middle of the Sahara Desert. But politics tend to make goods scarce rather than plentiful.
But sometimes there’s good news. Such as a recent report that the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board has issued a permit allowing a permanent seawater intake to be built at the Claude “Bud” Lewis Desalination Plant in Carlsbad. Once fully operable in 2023, the new intake system will supplement the 50 million gallons of “drought-proof” potable water the plant currently pumps out daily, most of it drawn from the Agua Hedionda Lagoon located next to the facility.
In a dry state that relies heavily on conservation, much of it forced and/or required by government; recycling; stormwater capture; and aquifers recharged by groundwater, the progress at the Carlsbad facility — named Desalination Plant of the Year at the 2016 Global Water Awards, and considered the largest plant in North America — is a welcomed development. But it still falls into the “should have been done long ago” category.
Israel has been on the pioneering edge of desalinating water since the 1960s. More than half of its domestic supply is pulled from the Mediterranean Sea. The country “is constantly inventing and implementing practical solutions” to solve its water scarcity problems, says Israel21C.
In California, it seems the “inventing and implementing” is mostly done by environmental groups scheming to block progress. When the Claude “Bud” Lewis facility was honored, the award committee said completion of the plant’s construction “followed years of seemingly insurmountable technical, financial and legal hurdles.” More than a few of those hurdles were set by environmental activists, who have also done the same to stop a desalination plant planned for Huntington Beach. The construction delays caused by activists and the resources expended in meeting their demands, which are more like shakedowns, make these projects, and the drinking water they produce for consumers, more costly than they would be if California had an honest water market that covered the state.
There are a few limited markets in the state, and their successes could activate markets in other corners. But even new observers of California politics know that if those markets stimulate imitators, progress will be intercepted by lawmakers and activists.
Which is deeply frustrating. As we’ve reported before, water markets have “been successful in Oregon, Nebraska and Colorado, as well as outside the U.S.,” including Australia, which has been identified by Matthew Fienup of California Lutheran University’s Center for Economic Research and Forecasting as home to “the finest example of water markets that function.”
While California farmers continually find themselves at war with regulators, bureaucrats, and lawmakers over water, 90 percent of Australian farmers said that by 2009, at the end of a 15-year drought in their country, water trading allowed them to keep their operations going.
Australia’s water markets also were also a business opportunity that created wealth. The National Water Commission reported the trading system boosted the country’s GDP by $220 million in 2008-09.
Of course, a water market can be stocked by a number of sources. Desalination plants, which are a growing source of drinking water around the world, are potentially significant contributors to that supply chain. So, yes, it’s good news when plant operations are expanded, even if it adds only a small bump in the supply relative to an entire state of consumers, because a lot of small bumps eventually add to a big one.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.