Seawater Desalination’s Time Has Come
Denis Bilodeau, PE
President John F. Kennedy once said, “If we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from salt water … it would be in the long-range interests of humanity which would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishments.” That was 1962. Today, almost 50 years later, California is on the precipice of pioneering the Pacific Ocean as a critical element of its drinking water supply.
In a Nov. 20 editorial (“How not to desalt the sea”), the Press-Telegram was quick to judge Poseidon Resources and its seawater desalination projects without all the facts.
In response to climate change and regulatory droughts, there are more than two dozen seawater desalination plants in various stages of development throughout California, including several local projects planned for Long Beach, Dana Point and Huntington Beach. In San Diego County the largest and most technologically-advanced seawater desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, capable of sustaining 300,000 residents, is now under construction.
10 billion gallons of drinking water
Today, around the world there are more than 8,000 seawater desalination plants using Reverse Osmosis (RO) to produce 10 billion gallons of drinking water. The technology is not new but it has been cost prohibitive in California where water historically has been relatively inexpensive. However, the supply of fresh drinking water in Southern California is increasingly more expensive and less reliable. As a result, we are aggressively expanding conservation efforts and have invested in water recycling. Orange County boasts the internationally-renowned Groundwater Replenishment (GWR) System, which treats wastewater for consumptive use. However, responsible water managers know that recycling and conservation alone will not be sufficient to meet the needs of our residents and businesses.
The majority of Southern California’s water is imported from Northern California and the Colorado River. As the cost for imported water rises rapidly, the cost to desalinate seawater continues to drop. Just 10 years ago, the cost to purify seawater was many magnitudes greater than the cost of imported water. So while the technology made it feasible, the cost did not. Today, while desalinating seawater is still slightly more expensive than imported water, it will not remain so for long.
More than a dozen Orange County public water agencies are aggressively pursuing seawater desalination to enhance water supply reliability and are entering into a public-private partnership with Poseidon Resources (also the developer of the Carlsbad desalination project) to receive water from their planned Huntington Beach desalination facility.
The Huntington Beach project, capable of producing 50 million gallons of drinking water every day, is scheduled to be the first large-scale desalination project to come online in Orange County.
No municipal bonds
The paper’s editorial included erroneous information about Poseidon Resources’ record and about the project’s costs and environmental impacts. The paper incorrectly wrote that Poseidon was financing their projects with “municipal bonds” and that the project was being subsidized. No municipal bonds are being used and the “subsidy” is an incentive that MWD is providing to local water agencies – not to Poseidon – to develop new water supplies, either through recycling or desalination in an effort to reduce Southern California’s dependence on imported water. The tax-free bonds Poseidon plans on using in Carlsbad and likely in Huntington Beach as well are specifically designed for private infrastructure projects that provide a public benefit. What better public benefit is there than a project that will provide Orange County with a new source for 8 percent of its drinking water?
Prices become more attractive
The editorial also claims that “nobody would want to buy” the desalinated seawater due to the cost. That is simply untrue. Responsible public water districts recognize the volatile nature related to the ever-rising cost of imported water and look forward to the stability and reliability of desalinated water, which is why the plan would be to lock in the water rates for the desalinated water with a 30-year contract. By locking in these rates over 30 years, ratepayers won’t have to play Russian-roulette with imported water costs, which can spike at any time if a new endangered fish is found up near Sacramento. I agree with the editorial that the public water agencies shouldn’t pay a dime unless Poseidon provides the water at the quantity, quality and price specified in the contracts.
Water is the most basic element of life and the pursuit to secure a reliable supply is necessary to protect California’s future. Seawater desalination will not solve our state water crisis. But along with conservation and water recycling, it will be a small part of the solution that will help us manage our situation in a more responsible way.
Denis Bilodeau, PE, serves as a director on the board of the Orange County Water District and as an Orange City Council member.