A Grain of Salt? Perhaps
OC Register Editorial
Southern California will unquestionable need new sources of water, as demand grows in the face of unending population growth. The state already is being forced to reduce its reliance on Colorado River water, so the question remains: Where do the new sources come from?
Echoing shades of the Jimmy Carter era, environmental groups are offering the solution of conservation. That, basically, is their only solution. Instead of finding new sources of water and building better infrastructure to move existing sources around the area, the environmental community simply wants a growing population to cut back on water use.
That’s untenable, if policy makers want to accommodate growth, including economic growth, rather than impose draconian water limits on those who live here.
A more promising proposal, one that makes little economic sense now but could be important in the future, is the construction of desalination plants that turn salt water from the sea into drinking water. A company called Poseidon Resources of Connecticut is looking to get approvals to build a desalination plant next to the AES power plant in Huntington Beach. Public agencies along the California coast also are proposing plans for similar plants – more than 20 in total, according to published reports.
Because of the massive infrastructure investment, and the raw costs of pushing tons of water through filters, the cost of producing drinking water this way is high – about $800 an acre-foot compared to $200 an acre foot for underground sources, according to published reports. Supporters of desalination, however, argue that the high-priced water is a useful addition to current supplies. In the electricity market, for instance, energy providers charge lower rates for long-term supplies and higher rates on the spot market, depending on the need at any given time. A similar economic dynamic could be at work for water supplies. “The price of desal water is coming down while the price of other water is going up,” explains Chris St. Hilaire, a spokesman for Poseidon. He also notes that desalination stabilizes the price of water.
Critics of the idea are off base. Some complain that the plants will lengthen the lifespan of the electricity generators they are built near. The Poseidon plant would be build near the AES power plant, for instance, because it would depend on the huge water cooling pipes already in place there. The goals of the environmentalists include driving out a plant they view as unsightly, as opposed to meeting electricity or water needs for the population.
Some complain that the intake valves will harm marine wildlife – something that should be evaluated, but can most likely be mitigated with proper design of the water pipes.
Others argue that creating new sources of water will only encourage more population growth, which again shows the environmental community’s backward priorities. Metropolitan Water District Chairman Wes Bannister complained to the Huntington Beach Independent that desalination is inevitable, but that it should be done in the public sector. It seems better to allow private investors to risk their own capital on this idea rather than put taxpayers on the hook. And a Poseidon plant, unlike a water agency, will pay taxes to Huntington Beach.
Poseidon did have some troubles with its Tampa Bay desalination facility, as the Huntington Beach Wave has reported. Nevertheless, there’s no reason the company shouldn’t be given a shot at building a facility in Huntington Beach.
There is one important caveat.
The company should get its approvals, but it should not get subsidies. If the market will allow for a desalination project, great. But taxpayers should not be forced to pay for any of the construction.