“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards shrank; Water, water, everywhere, one more drop to drink.”
Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned these words in his 1798 poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to describe the plight of pacified sailors who were left to die of thirst while surrounded by endless expanses of undrinkable seawater.
In a way, it also describes California’s plight. Despite its 3,427 miles of Pacific Ocean shoreline, including bays, inlets, and tidal marshes, the state has an ever-widening gap between its water needs and its supply.
Of course, there has been a decades-long debate over whether the state should tap into this endless supply of seawater to fill the gap, emulating other arid and semi-arid societies, particularly in Australia and the Middle East.
From a technical perspective, it’s a no-brainer. Desalination plants, including some already operating in California, are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do — removing the salt from seawater and turning it into fresh water suitable for drinking or other uses. The obstacles to building dozens of desalination plants along the coast are economic, environmental and political.
Such plants require vast amounts of electrical energy to pump in the seawater, force it through filters that remove the salt, and then return the oversalted brine waste either to the sea or to another process.
A massive desalination program would put a new strain on an electricity grid that is already struggling to keep up with demand on very hot days as it moves away from natural gas-fired power plants towards renewable sources such as wind and solar. Desal’s electricity requirements also contribute heavily to the final cost of water production, making it more expensive than water from other sources, at least so far.
Finally, environmental groups have generally opposed desalination projects, claiming that pumping seawater into the plants and returning brine to the sea risks damaging delicate marine ecosystems. But the groups have another unspoken reason for opposition. Restricted water supplies have been used as a tool against new housing developments, and increasing water supplies undermines this policy tool.
All of these points were brought together in the California Coastal Commission’s rejection of a much-discussed desalination project in Huntington Beach, Orange County earlier this year. The plant would be a near clone of a desalination plant in Carlsbad, further south along the coast.
At the time, this appeared to be a deathblow for California’s desalination expansion — something Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration includes in its overall plan to close the demand/supply gap as climate change and semi-permanent drought disrupt traditional supplies of winter rain and snowfall .
However, last month the Coastal Commission approved another desalination project in Orange County that uses slightly different technology to pump in seawater and dilute the leftover brine before it is returned to the sea.
Environmental groups gave their blessings to the Dana Point project, which made a big difference in the Coastal Commission’s stance, as did the fact that it’s only a tenth the size of the Huntington Beach project and would exclusively serve local South Coast Water customers District.
The approval was an indication that desalination, as envisioned by the state water plan, could play a significant role in California’s water future, one that will be very different from its rich past.
That said, Desal probably wouldn’t be the silver bullet of limitless supply that some were hoping for. It would be more of a reliability factor, something Californians could rely on if traditional supplies went down.
About the author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years and has worked for California newspapers for all but a few of those years. He began his professional career in 1960 at the age of 16 with the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, see Calmatters.org/commentary.
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