Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90 percent of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100M+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

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The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. Most of that water either evaporates, percolates or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers.

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25 percent reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4 percent of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25 percent reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

water-desalinationOne way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100 percent of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion.

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100 percent of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100 percent of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90 percent of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.


  1. Too bad this isn’t front page reading on the major newspapers and the same for the iphone set. I’ve been saying for a year that a huge desal plant in Eureka feeding Lake Shasta would be a major help. But then I forgot about pumping the water up and over the mountains to L.A.
    One way or another, the stupid choo choo to nowhere has to be shut down!

    • Desal plants are the way to go! BUT until we replace the libturd thinking in Stinkramento, nothing will change! As we continue to fill up the cesspool in the backyard of the legislature’s whore house with corrupt union officials and demo-creep officials! I guess when we get thirsty we can drink democrat promises!

  2. Have we TOTALLY lost common sense in this State?

  3. $7.5 billion voted for drought relief and already $700 million spent to expand government to spend the billions, including $30 million to continue the possible hoax about man-made global warming And now billions wasted for what? An unnecessary expensive train that politicians now (not before elections) speak out against. No foresight in our elected and lacking a pair of ears to listen to common sense. Sadly, they get re-elected, so much for the intellect of our citizens.

  4. It’s amazing that Brown is building a train instead of using those billions to find a long term solution to our water crisis….Who votes for these dumb-asses. There’s solutions out there but he makes it a political football.. If desalination plants wont pass the almighty Sierra Club…Build a water pipeline or an aquaduct from Oregon/Washington I’m sure they’d be willing to sell some of their water. Sure it will cost us more but at least we will have water, as it is we will pay more and get less…much less

  5. It’s no wonder that people are fed up with government. Corruption and outright stupidity are rampant at the state and federal levels! And they never make a mistake, correct an error, or are held responsible. They seem to be saying, “You can’t touch me!” We would have to recall or threaten to impeach whole assemblies, congresses, governors, and the president in order to make them listen and deal responsibly with our critical problems.

  6. Harry Hartman says

    This is a solution that should be fast tracked, no pun intended, by both political parties. Grind Jerry’s Choo- Choo train to halt NOW.

  7. But…but….those shovels cause smog, and global warming, and the hole in the ozone.

  8. R Ray Morford says

    Shut the Moon-Beam Gov Up and purify the Ocean Water !!!!!!!

  9. Wayne Lusvardi says

    What is missing in Ring’s intriguing article is that desal only works in coastal areas that have no groundwater basins, which depend on pricey imported water, and that also have an existing or permittable coastal power plant.

    So let’s say the Carlsbad or Monterey desal plants could produce 1 million acre feet of water per year. That would be enough water for 6 million people or 2 million households. How would you transport the water to 2 million households uphill from sea level? Today water gravity flows downhill toward the coastline in urban areas which is cheap. But with desal you would have to pump water uphill and the pumping would require large amounts of energy, to say nothing of having to build a redundant pipeline grid: one for gravity flow to the coast and another for pumping from the coast to inland areas. And you would probably need regulating reservoirs to store the water for peak loads on hot days. Where are you going to find the land in built-out coastal cities for regulating reservoirs?

    The distribution system and rights of ways needed for widespread desal could be cost prohibitive.

    The cities of Santa Monica, Carpinteria, Ventura County Water District No.1, and Carlsbad and Monterey are moving toward full water self sufficiency but each in a different way: desal for Carlsbad and Monterey, Recycling for Santa Monica, and conjunctive use for others. There is no one size fits all solution to California’s drought and each municipality has to find their own solutions.

  10. Warren Walter says

    Only idiots would build a bullet train instead of desalination plants.

  11. It is very sad that all the typical Democrat voter knows or understands is to vote next to the big “D” for “the common working man” and to punish those fat, plutocrat Republicans. It appears that the elected California Democrat is a Luddite “environmentalist” that would send us all back to the middle ages.

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