As California's drought lingers, desalination remains hot topic

Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Ray Hiemstra

With California's drought in full swing and a statewide policy taking shape, 2014 is stacking up to be a critical year for desalination in the Golden state.

To recap, last November the California Coastal Commission postponed a decision on approving a Coastal Development Permit for the private corporation Poseidon Water to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Through early 2014, activists have been waiting for the State Water Resources Control Board to complete their draft of a statewide desalination policy that would guide the development of desalination plants throughout California. At the same time, Poseidon has been pushing the Orange County Water District to move forward with a deal to buy the full capacity of desalinated water produced by the Huntington Beach plant.  

California's water use

In California as a whole, 77% of water goes to agriculture and 13% goes to residential use, according to a UCLA report from 2009. In the South Coast Hydrologic Region, California‘s most urbanized and populous region, a whopping 54% of water goes to residential use. The region covers 11,000 square miles or 7 percent of the state‘s total land and extends from the Pacific Ocean east to mountains of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, and from the Ventura Santa Barbara County line south to the international border with Mexico. It includes all of Orange County and portions of Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego counties.

Who's using all that SoCal water? This water guzzler graphic that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News earlier this year shows the average California uses 196 gallons of water per capita per day. But pool-studded Palm Springs drinks up 736 gallons per capita per day and industrialized Vernon -- worst in the state -- uses 94,111 gallons per capita per day.

Poseidon's interest in desal

After the Coastal Commission decision slowed plans, Poseidon began to work with the commission to determine the best design for their proposed desalination plant. Earlier this year, the company came to an agreement with the Coastal Commission to convene an expert panel to determine the feasibility of using subsurface intakes at the proposed plant. In June, the panel met for the first time in Huntington Beach and heard information from Poseidon, the Coastal Commission staff and the public.

For the first time, Poseidon admitted that a subsurface intake is technically feasible at Huntington Beach, something that they had denied for 15 years. A subsurface intake would be more environmentally friendly to ocean dwellers. This was all the result of the commission doing a thorough job of investigating the project and following through on its conclusions. The panel is still meeting as of this date and a final report is anticipated for the fall.

What's happening in Carlsbad

The San Jose newspaper also reported about another Poseidon plant recently built in Carlsbad. "Will California -- like Israel, Saudi Arabia and other arid coastal regions of the world -- finally turn to the ocean to quench its thirst? Or will the project finally prove that drinking Pacific seawater is too pricey, too environmentally harmful and too impractical for the Golden State?" the story asks. Desalinated water would cost roughly $2,000 an acre foot, a very pricey fix for the state that doesn't seem to want to or be able to stop watering its lawns.

In the meantime, the State Water Resources Control Board had been taking their time in developing a draft statewide desalination policy. On July 3 they released a report that was quite a shock to all involved in the process. The water board staff threw out two years of stakeholders meetings and studies that had concluded that clear direction on desalination plant design was needed from the state board and that subsurface intakes were the best available technology. 

The draft policy instead leaves the determination of the best design to the Regional Water Quality Control Boards and only identifies subsurface intakes as the "preferred" technology for desalination. This leaves the door open for desalination proponents to game the system by proposing all kinds of options and leaving it to understaffed and inexperienced regional board staff to figure out if it is the best technology to protect water quality and marine life. The policy as written is a gift to desalination developers and a serious threat to the environment. The State Water Board is taking comments on the draft policy until August 19. See agency's Ocean Standards web page for all the details.

Pressure for the plant

As if all this was not enough, Poseidon is pushing their project forward at the Orange County Water District (OCWD). Late last year, some OCWD board members that support the Poseidon Huntington Beach proposal started working to have the district investigate the idea of purchasing the full capacity of the plant. This year, they have redoubled their efforts, and OCWD has now hired the same consultants that helped Poseidon cut a deal with the San Diego Water District for their Carlsbad plant to do the investigation for OCWD. 

This action was taken in spite of the huge outpouring of opposition to the idea, especially from Sierra Club members. At the meeting where the decision to move forward was made, 10 people spoke against the project and only one supported it. Also, more than 300 letters were received by the Orange County water agency opposing the project and only four supported it. It is unbelievable that the board would move forward against such public opposition, but it did. OCWD is now on a schedule to make a decision on whether to commit to buying the full capacity of the Poseidon project in August of this year.  

So it is clear that the desalination issue is far from settled, and there is still much work to be done to protect the environment from poorly designed projects. To be clear: It's not that desalination should not be considered as a water source. But the issue is that the sites and designs selected need to be as protective of water quality and marine life as possible. All involved need to consider the massive energy needs of desalination and its effects on climate change. 

So in the near future keep an eye out for action alerts on the statewide desalination process and the Orange County Water District. And if you think this issue does not involve you, you're wrong.  There are currently 16 proposed desalination plants for California, including a big one for L.A. County, and more are sure to come. This issue will only grow bigger with the drought and other water woes in California. 


The choice is stark for southern CA. Either do desalination, or require all the residents to let their lawns and landscaping die. I have been a resident for over 50 years...in the same house with a large yard. One tree that I planted is 80 feet tall with a spread of about 60 feet. The trunk is 8 feet in diameter at the base. It shades my whole back yard. I don't want to lose that tree.
I spend time in its shade every day. I am willing to pay for desalinzed water to keep my beautiful back yard. Please don't tell me I have to turn it into a desert.
There are too many people in Sourhern CA, and large housing tracts are still being built! Limiting growth would help with the water problem. But in the long run, desalination is the only feasible solution...unless all the beautiful residential areas are turned into a desert when we have a virtually infinite supply of water staring at us. Yes, it takes energy to desalinize...so let's get busy and put solar panels on every roof! I have one, and it supplies almost all the power for the house and my electric car.
I am already reducing water usage...replacing lawn areas with drought-tolerant plants and I provide a lot of habitat for local animals and birds. Doesn't that count for something?

Since AES Power has decided to raze their obsolete power plant in Redondo Beach, I understand the land will be re-zoned for mixed commercial/residential. The intakes from King Harbor remain intact (for now). West Basin water district has talked about putting a new desalinization plant somewhere, but we don't know where. The main problem is such a plant uses copious amounts of power. Would it be worth exploring the site for a potential desalinizatio plant? Maybe it could be designed as low profile--underground even so as not to affect the current planning.

I am sorry to read there is so much opposition to this soution to the water shortage in California. The world weather is changing and the staggering loss of ground water must be faced. Until we figure out how to reduce the population of the world we will need to use what ever means at our disposal to meet the needs of the people. The water of the oceans is increasing in amount as the ice fields melt. They are our best source. In the mean time we can start taking other measures to decrease our use but first things first. Bring us life giving water to drik and to grow our crops.

The limited research I have done on the Poseiden type lant could seriously be devastating to coastal habitats, especially vital plankton etc. The real problem is an energy problem. Subsurface intakes take way more energy, and even without, desal uses huge energy. To use fossil fuels for these, whether "co-located" with power plants or not, should be a non-starter, but I'm guessing Poseidon will insist that they must be allowed, especially if they use subsurface intakes. The Pseidon plant is and similar designs using Reverse Osmosis are extremely inefficient & will be outdated shortly, if any ingenuity whatsoever is prized more than s Ike-filled back door, good-old' boy deals. Lockheed (unfortunately) just patented a far less energy intensive filtration method than RO called "NANO-porous graphene," which is an ultra-thin layer of graphene who's mesh happens to be smaller than the molecules it is filtering, but let's the others pass perfectly. I'm not all that comfortable with a huge company that parents such an important technology that could help solve both our energy and water problems, if the company chooses to shelve that technology just to keep it off the market for now. Other technologies such as "zero liquid discharge" and solar desalination plants can help make environmentally and habitat damaging technologies like RO Obsolete, and I have no doubt that bad actors will choose to try to keep such technologies off the market specifically for that reason. Have a spine, why don't we for gods sake, it's for the entire future of the planet.

I forgot to add, that recycling and water efficiency measures are far more efficient that R.O. It doesn't even compare. The biggest problem is it is somewhat energy intensive. But this is a relatively small problem compared to RO. greasy water recycling, rainwater collection, recycling, it's a no-brainer. Compared to many other environmental problems, the water issue should be easy.

Overpopulation is THE problem with everything including water. Less people and the drought would not even matter. It has become taboo to even discuss this topic. We can not have a rational conversation about resources without telling people to quit ******* and making more people.

Off topic a bit, but what happens to all the salt/minerals? Is it shipped (barged) out to int'l waters and dumped? At what cost? (Fuel, ecosystem imbalance, etc.)
Or do we just change Huntington's nickname?

As with energy, the realization that conservation is easier and much less expensive than efforts to increase supply is fundamental economic and ecological reality. Jacking up the price of water for lawn waterers and pool maintainers could make desalinated water economically feasible. Could more efforts be extended to encourage landscaping of residences with xerophytes?

I'm against desalination, rather believing that all of us need to wean from our wasteful ways. For instance, the average lawn needs 48" of water yearly, far more than our rainfall in the best of years provides. Eliminate parkways, lawns as currently exist in most areas, including commercial and government, and re landscape using countless other means that are also beneficial to wildlife. Convert all shower, toilets and the like to low flow. The list is endless.

Their decision is unbelievable and demonstrates the fact that water management in California is an abomination.

Here in Vertura County, 6 or 7 new desalters are in various stages of concept through completion. Local water districts claim that it takes one third the energy to produce a gallon of desal water from one of these modern desalters vs. importing a gallon from the state water project. Cost of local desal water is predicted to be somewhat less than the cost of imported state water.

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