California’s desalination efforts, explained |

Many desalination plants already exist in California with more on the way.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California has more than 1,000 thousand miles of coastline and the water in the Pacific Ocean presents an opportunity for more fresh water in the state. Unlocking the opportunity takes time, money and resources, and some experts say it’s not for everyone.

California is the land of boom and bust and has the most dramatic swings in water availability in America.

Dr. Daniel Swain is a climate scientist who remarks often on the variability of the Golden State.

“We sort of live in a place that has a guaranteed drought every year, it’s called summer. We also have great year-to-year variability to these big swings between really wet years and the dry years,” said Swain.

California also has some of the most drastically different climate zones, including rainforests near the coast and parched deserts just a few hundred miles away.

There’s been one common issue since the 1800s: maximizing the water supply.

The massive system California has in place now is one of the most complicated, robust and successful systems ever created. That system has more recently incorporated the ocean.

Desalination is being put to the test in coastal areas up and down the state. The process takes salt out of ocean water and turns it into fresh water for people. State officials, as well as private partners, focus on these areas as the best fit for this water supply.

“Desalination is an important strategy for a lot of these coastal communities in California because many of them are in small watersheds and disconnected from some of the larger inter-regional and backbone infrastructure like the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project that does connect a lot of the state together,” said Kris Tjernell, the deputy director of Integrated Watershed Management for the Department of Water Resources.

Desalination has many well-known challenges like energy use, cost and very salty brine which goes back into the ocean, potentially disrupting the sensitive balance of the local water.

“The ocean itself has to maintain a balance. Most people don’t think about that. They just think, ‘oh, big salty ocean,’ however we do not get to dip a straw in the ocean and just suck out what we want. There are many things that depend on life in the ocean and that depend on the pH of that ocean and the acidity and solidity of that ocean to survive,” said Charming Evelyn.

Evelyn is the co-chair of the Water Committee for the Sierra Club in Southern California and grew up in the Caribbean. She believes conservation is key for California’s water future.

“Being from an island, your resources are limited. Everything comes from your pocket, there is no government program to save you or to help, so that means you conserve electricity because you have to pay for electricity. When you have a hurricane, your water is disrupted, electricity is disrupted, you save on gas, because you pay for all of these things out of your pocket,” said Evelyn.

She stresses conservation — among many other water-saving strategies already in use —could be done much better. Desalination is her least favorite option.

“If you look at places like Saudi Arabia before they put desal and Israel, they actually exhausted all the other options,” said Evelyn. “So if a place doesn’t have a lot of rainfall, they don’t have a lot of groundwater aquifers, maybe where they can store their recycled water, then absolutely, yes… ocean desal becomes an option.”

Amanda Fencl with the Union of Concerned Scientists shares Charming’s concerns about built-in drawbacks of desalination calling it a last resort. 

“There’s definitely a time and place for desalination and I think that the hope for different people having to make the choice of desal now is have we exhausted all the other solutions? Have we already conserved a lot? How are we managing our demand? Are we using more fit for purpose water,” said Fencl.

San Diego has long been concerned about its water supply. The area sits at the end of a long line of canals and aqueducts from Northern California and the Colorado River. It has limited groundwater and smaller mountain ranges. This results in less snowpack. There is no more major dam and reservoir potential in area.

It’s why the Pacific Ocean is now on tap in nearby Carlsbad. The Poseidon desal plant is funded by public and private dollars. It currently provides 10% of the San Diego-area water. 

The Poseidon desalination plant highlighted new investments and a commitment to be a supplier for the long haul in wet and dry years.

More plants will come online in the coming years. A groundbreaking to desalinate less salty “brackish” water for urban uses happened in Antioch just a few years ago and is expected to become fully functional this year.

An Antioch city council member commented on the prospects at the groundbreaking: “In the future, when our city is faced with water issues, taking in 6 million gallons a day and actually taking water with essentially with salt in it and turning that into drinkable water. It’s a fantastic thing for our city.”

Meanwhile, a $1.4 billion project in Huntington Beach was denied after years of debate.

Whenever state experts are asked about the future of desalination, they are quick to agree it’s part of the plan, but they are much more focused on water sources with more flexibility and fewer impacts like urban wastewater treatment, conservation and groundwater recharge. They point to the benefits of working with water already in the system in some way and maximizing efficiency while reducing energy use and costs overall.

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