Desal can mitigate California’s water woes

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy dedicated the nation’s first saline water conversion plant. A public-private partnership between U.S. Department of Interior and Dow Chemical, the Freeport, Texas plant converted seawater from the Gulf of Mexico into 1 million gallons a day of fresh water.

“No water resources program,” said Kennedy, “is of greater long-range importance than our efforts to convert water from the world’s greatest cheapest natural resources – our oceans – into water fit for our homes and industries.”

JFK’s pronouncement of more than a half century ago comes to mind in the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proclamation last week of a drought-related State of Emergency. “I’m calling on all Californians to conserve water in every possible way,” the governor said.

And he pointed California residents to, a web site maintained by the Association of California Water Agencies, which offers a half-dozen “water-saving ideas.” It urges one and all, among other suggestions:

  • “Update your toilets and showerheads;
  • “Fix your leaks;
  • “Take shorter showers;
  • “Only run your washing machine & your dishwasher when they are full.” 

But while water conservation can slow the increase in demand for water here in the Golden State, there has to be an increase in California’s water supply if the state is going to meet the needs of a growing population and growing economy.

And the most promising option in 2014, with Jerry Brown as governor, with Barack Obama in the White House, is the same as it was in 1961, with Pat Brown as governor, with JFK in the Oval Office: Desalination. 

Indeed, while California has 840 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean, there is only one facility currently in operation that converts seawater into fresh water – Sand City Desalination Plant in Monterey County, which came online in 2010 and produces about 300,000 gallons a day of drinkable water.

Lone Star desalination

Contrast that with Texas, which has less than half the coastline of California, but boasts nearly 100 desalination facilities, producing 138 million gallons of water per day fit for the Lone Star State’s homes and industries.

The reason Texas has found it much easier than drought-ridden California to bring desalination plants online is that environmental groups are less extreme in Texas than they are here in the Golden State.

Indeed, the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter published a report this past November that recognizes the promise desalination represents. It “offers the potential,” said Ken Kramer, the chapter’s Water Resources Chair, “for taking pressure off freshwater resources that are vital to environment.”

Meanwhile, here in California, environmental groups are dead set against desal.

Indeed, the Carlsbad Desalination Project, a $900 million, 50-million-gallons-a-day facility developed by Poseidon Water, faced more than a dozen separate legal challenges before finally securing state and local approval to start building.

And one of the environmental groups that went to court to kill Poseidon’s Carlsbad plant – the Surfrider Foundation, based in San Clemente – is now seeking to kill Poseidon’s proposed $900 million, 50-million-gallons-a-day Huntington Beach Desalination Project.

The environmental group doesn’t care that desalination can provide California a new drought-resistant supply of freshwater. Instead, it maintains that water conservation will provide “a secure and reliable water future.”

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