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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  1. billybs
    billybs 21 January, 2014, 19:41

    California needs to build desalination plants staffed with state employees making $150000 per year as long as they live that are undocumented, uneducated, and of marginal aptitude. Fairness.Their perks would include free college education for all dependents whether in Cal or not(have to major in Diversity Studies with minors in How the USA owes Me, and guaranteed jobs(paychecks) for the dependents with 3 percent pension calculation. Fairness.

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  2. Ted Steele, CEO
    Ted Steele, CEO 21 January, 2014, 20:06


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  3. Bill - San Jose
    Bill - San Jose 21 January, 2014, 21:42

    Said it a thousand times plus one: Reservoirs and hydro-electric for the win.

    Desal was on the table back in the late 70s and was duly crushed by the hippies back then. Desal does make sense. It will keep the rising liberal ocean waters from hot air exhaled by the pot lovin’ monkeys … and the like. =)

    Reply this comment
  4. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 22 January, 2014, 08:48


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  5. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 22 January, 2014, 10:30

    My guess as to why desalination plants are abundant in Texas is cheap electric power from natural gas powered plants.

    Along the California coastline there are many natural gas seeps where the gas burps up from the earth. California just lets its natural gas seep into the air without tapping it for energy production.

    Desalination is costly at about $2,000 per acre foot of water even with the help of a co-generation power plant. It would work best in places like San Diego which does not have any natural groundwater basins. But desalination plants are located at low elevations near sea level and often have to find ways to pump the water uphill to convey it to customers rather than gravity flow.

    Texas uses 595 gallons of water per household per day while California uses 696 gallons per household per day (see Texas Anti-Drought Plan is SWIFT; CA’s is SLOW). This is attributed to the control of water use by agricultural irrigation districts rather than by government.

    Thanks for this article.

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  6. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 23 January, 2014, 10:52

    California agriculture uses 80% of the state’s water. Of that amount, 20% is used for growing hay – Hay! – and close to 50% is for orchard crops. Something on the order of 95% of the water used for agriculture is eventually lost through uptake and evaporation, which means that over 75% of our entire state water use ends up evaporating into the air.

    Long before we impose additional residential water restrictions or begin the discussion about paying for new desalination plants, we should either reduce the amount of water available to low value crops such as hay or increase the price of water for such crops. It makes no sense for us to wast nearly 20% of our water on a low value/low return crop like hay and then claim we’re in the middle of a water crisis.

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  7. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 23 January, 2014, 19:06


    Hay feeds dairy cattle and sustains sheep and steers…..

    Meat and milk products……dah?

    Reply this comment
  8. Deepwater
    Deepwater 29 January, 2014, 06:44

    Our father of Permaculture, Bill Mollison, taught us to not take what we can not give back to the earth. Our understanding of the marine and other aquatic environments from which we extract water for human needs must be intergrated with water supply by promoting the health of the planet. Desalination is an artificial supplement to the natural hydrologic cycle. When coupled with renewable energy sources and conducted under the principles of Permaculture, saline water bodies such as the Pacific Ocean and the S.F. Bay can provide us with a sustainable source of water with any salt content. This means we can extract water for aquaculture to give back to the Earth by aiding fisheries and other aquatic life, use the aquaculture controlled manmade environment as the desalination intake structure. This type of system removes the adverse impacts to the natural environment while providing positive and sustainable enhancements to the natural environment. And yes, the waste discharge (brine) from desalination can be integrated into the controlled aquaculture system. It is my opinion that we should couple our funding for marine preservation and research through the cost of desalination through the pricinciples of Permaculture. This is the path at the end which is also the beginning.

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  9. Ted Steele, CEO
    Ted Steele, CEO 4 February, 2014, 07:11

    …or as Wendall Barry said……”Don’t piss in your cistern…”

    Reply this comment

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