Desalination vital to CA’s future water supply

As the California drought worsens by the week, we seem to overlook how long we’ve known this was coming — and how much time we’ve wasted failing to prepare.  We have had multiple warnings that the situation will escalate, including projections by experts at UC Davis that next year will be another drought year.  Yet, Sacramento continues to look at short-term solutions, including rationing, purchasing costly out-of-state water and levying possible penalties for overuse.  Governor Jerry Brown is placing Proposition 1 on the ballot in November to secure $7.5 billion in emergency funds, after already passing relief packages earlier this year.  

It’s stupefying how long the water playbook in California has relied upon the same potboiler: Ignore the problem until it’s too late to do anything but deploy costly emergency measures that have no long-term impact on our state water problems.

We need to take the idea of investment into longer-term solutions seriously, and commit to a tried-and-true, globally-used technology that could drastically change our state’s water issues: Desalination.  

A process that has gained popularity in the past decade, desalination takes ocean or partially-salinated water and uses a filtration system to remove salt via a process called osmosis, resulting in drinkable, fresh water.  Thousands of desalination plants have cropped up around the world since the early 2000s, in arid climates like the Middle East.  These plants have provided sustained, consistent sources of water to places that could not survive otherwise — a direction in which California is likely to be headed.

California has long considered desalination. In 2002, a state-funded exploratory group spent $50 million, determining that desalination is an environmentally safe, as well as effective, source of clean water that should be included in our state’s long-term water resources planning.   There are nearly a dozen existing or proposed plants up and down the coast, including a major project in Carlsbad that will offer 50 million gallons of water each day, enough for roughly 3 million people.  When it is completed in 2015, it will have a significant impact on an area that has been for decades dependent on other regions for its water supply.  

Yet, the Carlsbad plant almost did not happen, thanks to regulatory reviews that lasted over six years, and over a dozen lawsuits by environmental groups designed to prevent the plant from being built — all of which were successfully won by the plant’s developers.  The immediate benefits of the Carlsbad plant to the San Diego area will be obvious, from lower spending on outside water next year, to less pressure on agriculture and business as water costs, and availability, are more consistent. If residents of San Diego look back at the years of delays, and the high costs of water shortage, they have to wonder if the protestations were worth the losses.

The study by UC Davis projects that this year the California drought will cost at least $2.2 billion in economic losses (not to mention the high cost of buying and importing water).  There is no reason not to expect the same or greater losses next year, or in 2016, if the drought continues.  How much revenue will the state of California lose before those who argue against the high cost of desal technology admit it is worth it to prevent future losses?

Now that we can look at the costs of this year’s drought alone, and the price tag of the state’s emergency relief measures, the $1 billion price tag of the Carlsbad plant seems reasonable by comparison.  Many desal plants around the state come at a much lower cost.  Santa Barbara is in the process of improving a desal plant that was built, and then abandoned, several years ago, at a cost of roughly $20 million.  Monterey spent about $14 million on a similar project.  

These, and other smaller coastal projects, prove that communities can spend much less to ensure a secure water future.  So, why hasn’t the state considered helping fund the investment? The governor has now proposed or approved over $8 billion in emergency water spending in 2014.  Where would California be in two years if the state directed even a portion of that total toward developing proposed desalination plants?  Such an investment would guarantee fewer emergency funds will be needed in future years, as we would be better able to manage years with little rainfall.

Skeptics of desalination claim the high cost alone makes the technology a less-than-ideal option for the state.  Many argue that California should continue to rely on water recycling, a method currently used to treat wastewater, removing sewage and returning it to our water system. However, the use of desalination has proven to be tried-and-true around the globe, and the reliance on a diminishing supply of available drinking water through recycling has not prevented us from reaching this critical point.  Our lakes and rivers have dried up; our underground aquifers are heading toward the same fate.  Desalination is likely the only rational and economically sound solution for California.

Yuri Vanetik is a private investor and philanthropist.