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.  

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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.


  1. Desalination is the best and ONLY solution but as long as elitist tree hugging demo-creeps are in charge NOTHING WILL EVER get done! We can survive ONLY three days without water! Time to DWELL on that and NOT the touchy-feely BULL CRAP in the stinkramento dictatorship cesspool AKA our state legislature! Time to DUMP the train and get on board with DESALINATION!

    • If there a Demorat making money on the project it would happen. Remember it was the Demorats that brought us uneconomical corn based alcohol gasoline additives cost us all more for food. Do they care, no just like Demorats want to tax the air you, me and plants breathe and call it global warming. I repeat if a Demorat was making money on De-sal it would happen in a heartbeat.

  2. Robert Hamilton says

    I have written to my politicians and that is the excuse I get.”It’s too expensive.” Our naval ships all have desalination plants aboard. $7.5 billion in emergency funds would be better spent in building solar powered desalination plants. I am sure Yuri Vanetik would be willing to invest.

  3. As I have said for the last year or so, Moonbeam should dump his choo-choo and use the money for a giant de-sal plant on the coast directly feeding Lake Shasta. Shasta feeds the Sacramento River and is the main supplier of water for the State. It boggles my mind to see that the liberals A——s in Sacramento won’t see this.

  4. Deport all illegal aliens and see if there is a water shortage.

    • notosharia says

      Yep, deport and see if the giant sucking sound of our tax-$$ gets
      fainter as the illegals and the RR to no-where get out of the way!

  5. We will be reading stories on how to save California from the draught… The truth is that this legislature has known the draught was coming for years, and chose not to anything about it. Instead they spent money on things like the Fast Trans Railroads will be subsidized forever, and fewer that 10% of the population will use… Water everyone uses, The state government has chosen to ignore the basic needs of every Californian…. And, they have not even looked into the usage 47% goes out to the sea for environmental issues protecting NON-NATIVE bait fish….. Farmers get 41% to grown food for all of us, not counting the JOBS they create. the other 12% goes to domestic use…. Next time they have a bond issue for some pet project for the governor, or some other Politician, Tell them “Hell NO” until the address our water systems.

  6. Jerry is superlative at Thinking Small.
    Just think about how accurate he was when he told us – 40-years ago – that “If we don’t build it, they won’t come”?

  7. One way to save millions of a gallons of water is to “DUMP SOLAR”!!!

  8. Besides desalination to get us water, we can save millions of gallons of water per day by getting rid of Solar!!!

  9. HANK de Carbonel says

    I agree it makes sense. Which incompetent State agency would you suggest get the task? First lots of expensive unread and useless studies, while more restrictive regulation and fees imposed paid to the no nothings.
    I would refer you to the Australian experience, not good. A honest and competent government or private enterprise could do it quickly and at a reasonable cost. Not the State of California. Think Bay Bridge.

  10. How about keeping Nestle from bottling water from Indian owned land and EXPORTING to other states.

  11. Richard Rider says

    While desalination is a viable option to consider in delivering more water to California, what is lacking in this article is the real or projected TOTAL cost per acre foot of water — comparing different methods of providing (primarily) thirsty Southern California addition water.

    There are many factors to include in such a price, making such calculations less than easy. But to tout (or oppose) desalination without considering the cost advantage or disadvantage is just plain silly.

    One thing is pretty clear — desalination requires a LOT of energy, so the only viable option is to piggyback on an existing energy source such as Carlsbad, which uses the “waste” heat from an electricity plant to evaporate the salt water — making potable water. I would think that this limitation would pretty much bind such plants to coastal applications.

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