Conservation alone won’t cut it

California needs desalinationLos Angeles Times Op-Ed – By Peter MacLaggan


Los Angeles Times Op-Ed – By Peter MacLaggan

Mindy McIntyre of the Planning and Conservation League opines in an installment of a Dust-Up, “The SUV of water,” that seawater desalination is impractical. It’s 2008; innovation, technology and an evolving regulatory and environmental landscape render McIntyre’s Model T-era assertion incredible and outdated.

Today, there are more than 21,000 desalination plants in 120 countries around the world producing 3 billion gallons of drinking water a day. Rest assured the world does not know something that we don’t — California has a dozen plants in various stages of permitting, including a 50-million-gallon-a-day plant in Carlsbad that will be the largest and most technologically advanced in the Western Hemisphere. Local, state and federal policymakers and water resource managers are aggressively pursuing seawater desalination in an effort to diversify water portfolios and protect against drought-inflicted blows to the economy and public health. Still, not everyone is honestly confronting the reality that new potable water supplies are not unlimited, choosing instead to believe that we can simply conserve our way out of the next water supply crisis.

California’s water supply system is based largely on pumping water from environmentally sensitive watersheds in Northern California and the Colorado River over hundreds of miles to Southern California through an elaborate and costly network of dams, canals and reservoirs. But proven desalination technology now allows us to produce higher-quality water along the coast, where the majority of the state’s population resides, at a comparable cost and without damaging the environmentally sensitive upstream habitats.

It is true that seawater desalination historically has been prohibitively expensive, but today this is no longer the case due in large part to technological advances and the escalating cost and scarcity of traditional water sources. Yes, energy is one of the cost variables associated with the production of desalinated water; however, the same is true for the transportation of imported water and the treatment of reclaimed water. In truth, the escalating energy costs that McIntyre worries about — and associates only with seawater desalination — will affect all means of new drinking water production.

More than just a new water supply project, the Carlsbad desalination will be the first major infrastructure project in the state to eliminate its carbon footprint. This voluntary commitment is unprecedented, and it has led many to believe that the project will help set the tone for the implementation of AB 32, California’s ground-breaking Global Warming Solutions Act.

The bigger concern facing Californians is the inordinate time it takes to build infrastructure that addresses a dire public need. The Carlsbad facility was introduced a decade ago, and has spent the last five years winding its way through the state’s permitting process. Every regulatory agency, including the heavyweight environmental watchdog California Coastal Commission and the State Water Quality Control Board, have determined that the project is necessary and can be built and operated without negatively affecting the environment. McIntyre, and a few unsatisfied others, have opposed this project every step of the way, filing appeals and lawsuits to slow down a potable water project that will provide a drought-proof supply to 300,000 Californians.

To put this challenge into proper perspective, during the same period that the Carlsbad desalination project has been navigating the California regulatory process, Australia, in response to severe drought conditions similar to those we are experiencing here in the Southwest, has commissioned one major desalination facility in Perth, has two projects under construction and three more projects in various stages of planning that are expected to be operational by 2011. The combined capacity of these facilities is 180 million gallons a day.

Seawater desalination is not a silver bullet that will allow California to single-handedly avoid a water supply crisis, but it is a critical part of the effort at all levels of government to diversify the state’s water supply portfolio. The general public, elected officials and water resource managers overwhelmingly support seawater desalination because its time has come. Conservation and recycling alone won’t be enough, but combined with seawater desalination, California has a real solution.

Peter MacLaggan is senior vice president of Poseidon Resources Corporation, which specializes in developing and financing water infrastructure projects, primarily seawater desalination and water treatment plants.

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