In June 2006, the Pacific Institute (PI) published a report entitled, Desalination, With a Grain of Salt—A California Perspective. Ignoring several decades of successful track record of desalination in over 120 countries worldwide and the recent groundbreaking advances in applied
desalination research in California, the report presents an opinion that most of the ongoing seawater desalination initiatives in the State of California are premature. This opinion is not shared by the people of California, who in the November 2002 state election voted in support
of Proposition 50, which endorses the development of an integrated water management plan for the Golden State in which desalination finds its rightful place, along with enhanced water reuse and conservation.
The report ignores the state government’s recognition that reliance on existing fresh water resources, aggressive conservation and water reuse alone may not be adequate to meet long-term water demand and that the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has charted a new course of exploration of seawater and brackish water desalination as an alternative reliable and drought-proof water supply addition to the state water portfolio. The potential barriers associated with the use of seawater desalination presented in the report are: the growth inducement potential of the proposed desalination projects; the affordability of the desalinated water; the relatively higher energy use; the potential environmental impacts from the operation of the desalination plant intake and discharge; and public health concerns associated with the quality of desalinated water.
State of research
Currently the DWR is administering a (US) $50 million desalination grant program created to assist water utilities statewide in the implementation of brackish water and seawater desalination projects. The first round of this program was carried out in 2005 by awarding $24.75 million
to 24 different desalination projects. The second round of the program awarded another $21.5 million of grants to 23 projects in June 2006. The grand funding was allocated to feasibility studies; applied research, development and pilot testing activities; and to the implementation of demonstration and full-scale desalination projects. The funded projects (scheduled to be completed by 2009) are expected to provide
practical solutions to key environmental, energy and cost challenges that the use of desalination may face in California.
Will desalination initiatives induce unplanned growth? California’s desalination initiative is planned to yield over 20 new projects state wide which would supply up to 450
mgd of high-quality drinking water by year 2020. Locations of the key ongoing seawater desalination projects throughout
the state are indicated in Figure 1. Even if all of the proposed desalination projects are built at their maximum planned capacity, they would be adequate to only supply 1.1 percent of the total current state water demand of 40,000 mgd and approximately 5.6 percent of its urban water demand of 8,000 mgd. The PI report insinuates that this volume of ‘new’ water is somehow going to spur significant population growth and would result in an unpredictably high burden on the state’s electrical supply system and other resources. A look at the actual facts, however, reveals a very different story.
According to the 2005 California Water Plan, by year 2030 the state’s population is projected to increase by 31.5 percent (from 36.5 million to 48 million), which averages approximately 1.26 percent per year (prorated to 12.6 percent by year 2015, when all proposed desalination
projects are to be operational). It is obvious that even if the entire 5.6 percent increment of state urban water supply that would result from the implementation of all of the proposed desalination projects is applied towards the 12.6 percent of population growth planned to occur by year 2015, this supply increment would be sufficient to meet less than half of this planned growth. Therefore, the PI report’s conclusion that the proposed desalination projects have significant potential to induce unforeseen and unplanned population growth in the state is unrealistic
and also lacks common sense.
Review of the environmental impact reports (EIRs) which have already been prepared for a number of the proposed desalination projects clearly indicates that the main purpose of these projects is to reduce reliance on future increases to in-state or out-of-state water transfers
which would be unsustainable in the long-term; to curtail further over-pumping of already severely deteriorated groundwater aquifers; and to curtail existing water supply practices throughout the state that have significant environmental impact on fragile river ecosystems, rather than to accommodate new population growth in the respective project service areas.
For example, the EIR for the 50 mgd Carlsbad seawater desalination project, which was certified in early 2006, clearly states that this project is planned to replace the reliance of the City of Carlsbad and a number of other neighbouring utilities on water imported from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the Colorado River because these sources are drought sensitive and have uncertain futures. Due to lack of local
water resources (groundwater aquifers suitable for water supply and surface fresh water sources) the City of Carlsbad currently relies solely upon imported water for its water supply. This condition is shared by the majority of the communities in San Diego County where imported water makes up over 80 percent of the county’s current water portfolio.
Similarly, the EIR for the 50 mgd Huntington Beach seawater desalination project certified in the spring of 2006, states that the main purpose of
the project is to provide relief to the over-pumped coastal aquifers of Orange County and to reduce reliance of the county’s water supply on
imported water, rather than to accommodate new population growth. The desalinated water produced from the project is planned to be introduced in the county’s regional water distribution system and to be delivered to over two dozen municipalities and utilities.
The ongoing desalination initiatives in Northern California (see Figure 1) are also driven by pressing environmental concerns, water supply aquifer deterioration trends and by the need to secure long-term water supply reliability and sustainability.
For example, one of the largest seawater desalination projects currently under development in San Francisco County is proposed by Marin Municipal Water District. This project is targeted to produce between 10 mgd and 15 mgd of desalinated water and to provide a reliable,
drought-proof alternative to the construction of a new pipeline for supplemental water supply from the already over-allocated Russian River.
Marin Municipal Water District has recently completed a 12-month desalination pilot test and preparation is well under way of an environmental impact assessment for this project; a draft EIR was expected to be circulated for public review by the end of 2006.
Similarly, the main purpose of the large seawater desalination project proposed for the City of Moss Landing in Monterrey County is to alleviate
further over-pumping of the Monterey Bay coastal aquifers and to comply with the state-mandated curtailment on withdrawal of fresh water from Carmel River because of the detrimental impact of said withdrawal on the salmon population in the river.
It is also interesting to note that while the report emphasizes desalination’s potential to induce population growth, it remains completely silent on the fact that if additional water is made available through more aggressive water conservation or water reclamation, this water has equal potential to create growth inducement. This subjective double-standard approach is intertwined in practically every aspect of the report’s analysis of
desalination viability and is one of the major flaws of the document. PI’s subjectivity leaves the impression that the authors are trying to oversell water reuse and conservation at the expense of desalination.
The reality is that except for the authors of the report and a few radical supporters, the majority of California’s population, the state government and the proponents of the desalination initiatives, all agree that securing a sustainable water future for California demands a balanced portfolio which includes all four key types of water supply sources: conventional water supplies, reuse, conservation and desalination. None of the
proponents of the ongoing desalination projects even contemplates replacing water reuse and conservation with desalination. Quite the opposite: most utilities considering the development of large desalination projects also have in place comprehensive long-term water reuse and conservation programs and plan to enhance such programs simultaneously with the implementation of their desalination initiatives.