San Diego’s Successful Desal Plant Should Be a Model for California Water Policy

Often the value of a plan or project can best be judged by its opposition. In the case of the proposed Poseidon desalination plant in Huntington Beach, the forces lined up against it are clear indicators that it’s a worthwhile enterprise.

The Sierra Club calls the plant “rather pathetic,” “the most expensive and environmentally damaging way to secure Orange County’s future water supply.”

research paper co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the California Coastkeeper Alliance, the California Coast Protection Network, and several other groups says that “given the significant energy, climate, and financial costs of desalination, California should prioritize water conservation, water use efficiency, stormwater capture, wastewater recycling, and renewably powered groundwater desalination.”

What these groups have in common is a hostility toward any advancement that doesn’t fit their narrow definition of what is acceptable. They are BANANAs — groups whose slogan could be “build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone (or anything)” — in the most literal sense of the term. Their primary interests, clothed as environmental stewardship, are curbing market capitalism, restricting the free movement of people, and even controlling population growth.

In favor of the $1.4 billion plant, almost but not quite unexpectedly, is Gov. Gavin Newsom. Some argue his support is of no worth because the birthday party he attended at a Napa Valley restaurant last fall at the same time he had told Californians to stay home was for a Poseidon lobbyist.

But that episode, infuriating as it is, should have no bearing on the project. The plant, which has been on the drawing board for more than two decades but has yet to draw a drop of water from the ocean, is important to California.

Desalination plants are drought proof, a point that can’t be overstressed in a state that is constantly battling devastating dry spells. They’re not dependent on snowpack in the Sierras nor the outcome of the multi-state debate over Colorado River water rights. The process provides a steady and reliable source of live-giving water.

Turning ocean brine into clean drinking water is not science fiction. Roughly 60 miles south of Huntington Beach, the Claude “Bud” Lewis desalination plant in Carlsbad has been producing potable water for five years. At a cost of roughly $1 billion, it churns out about 50 million gallons a day, “providing more than 7% of San Diego County’s water,” California journalist Steven Greenhut wrote last year in “Winning the Water Wars.”

It’s just one of 11 desalination plants in the state. Ten more have been planned.

One of desalination’s drawbacks is its relatively high cost. In his book, Greenhut recalls a conversation he had with U.S. California Rep. Tom McClintock, who noted, he says, that “raising Shasta Dam would provide 1,200% more water than the Carlsbad plant for only 40% more money.” But in a world where politics “make it so hard to build new (water) storage,” desalination is still “an important investment.”

Recent crises in California and Texas remind us that when an energy portfolio is made up of limited sources, it will fall short when confronted by natural and manmade adversity. Water is no different. It requires an all-of-the-above approach. Yes, cost should always be a factor. However, as Greenhut says, in times of drought, having a dependable source of water available from desalination facilities “can prove invaluable.”

It’s also important to note that costs won’t be high forever. The price differential between desalinated and “conventional” water is compressing, says Greenhut, because other sources are becoming more expensive.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board is expected to decide next month if it will issue a permit for the Poseidon plant. The final step would be approval from the California Coastal Commission, which is likely to make its decision by the end of the year.

If the project is cleared, it will impact more than the Orange County customers who will use its 50 million gallons of clean water produced each day. The Los Angeles Times says “the fate” of the facility “could set the course for future projects” elsewhere in the state. Imagine California never again having to worry about drought.

Environmentalists have brought the most intense opposition, but their concerns are overwrought, even absurd (the Surfrider Foundation claims the “Pacific is not a limitless resource”). Nothing is ever built in this state unless it passes the most rigorous environmental standards in human history. If the project is denied, it will be based on politics, not science.

Kerry Jackson is a fellow in 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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