“Water, water, everywhere, not any drop to drink.” – Coleridge
I think back to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner whenever I read about California’s worsening water crisis. Outside my window is the Monterey Bay, an arm of the world’s largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could apply some of our spiffy modern technology to solve the Ancient Mariner’s dilemma and turn all that water into something potable?
Desalination is poised to become one of the next big things in California, and already is becoming a major political issue. In Carlsbad, located a few miles north of San Diego on the coast, a consortium of cities and water agencies has allied with Poseidon Resources to plan the nation’s largest desalination plant, to be co-located with the Encina power station. The plant would create 50 million gallons of water per day, and 56,000 acre feet per year – “enough for 300,000 residents of San Diego County,” touts the project website.
As promising as desal is with our water crisis, however, it has potentially damaging effects on ocean life and on global warming – which led the California Coastal Commission staff to recommend the Poseidon plant be denied its necessary permits. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday to determine the ultimate fate of this project. Similar fights are brewing or have already begun in Orange County, Marin County, and here on the Monterey Bay.
The growing controversy surrounding desalination reveals a deeper truth about our future. The problems we face with water, global warming, and energy are not separate. They are, in fact, facets of a broader crisis of civilization. A solution to one facet must not aggravate another. Like pieces on a chessboard, or blocks in a late-night Jenga game, each piece exists relationally to the others. Building an energy-sucking, pollution-spewing desalination plant is likely to have some unpleasant blowback.
There are at present two primary methods of desalination. The first is known as “reverse osmosis filtration” and the second is “multi-stage flash distillation.” Most of the world’s existing desal plants use one or the other method, which have some differences but also some fundamental similarities. Both require large amounts of energy to produce the potable water, and both require intake from the sea.
Where will this energy come from? Fossil fuels, primarily. The Persian Gulf nations, such as Bahrain and Qatar, run their massive plants with cheap and locally available oil. For the US, however, we’ll have to import oil or natural gas – both of which are facing peaking supplies and rapidly increasing prices – to power desalination plants. And of course, running desal with either of those fossil fuels produces significant carbon dioxide emissions, adding to global warming.
In order to address both the power problem and the intake problem, companies promoting desalination plants here in California have championed what is known as “co-location” – that is, putting a desal plant alongside an existing power plant. This allows desal plants to take advantage of existing energy production as well as use the water discharge normally generated by the power plant. That’s the plan being floated for as many as THREE desal projects at the Moss Landing Power Plant here on Monterey Bay, and for the Poseidon plant at Carlsbad.
The battle over the Poseidon plant, which reaches the full California Coastal Commission on Thursday, is pitting environmental advocates against those who see desalination as a necessary part of California’s future. The project is supported by much of San Diego’s political establishment, from State Sen. Christine Kehoe to SD Mayor Jerry Sanders, most local cities, and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi.
A proposed ocean desalination factory in Carlsbad, California will create between 95,905 metric tons and 170,000 metric tons of CO2 (the variance depends on the source of electricity servicing the desal factory).
Poseidon claims that the plant will be carbon neutral, but the claim – made only two weeks ago in the face of growing opposition – is not fully explained, and appears to rest on the unverified notion that locally produced water would have a smaller carbon footprint to water moved by the State Water Project’s electric pumps. Surfrider has voiced concerns that the plant might fuel further urban sprawl, which would negate any carbon reductions the desal plant provides.
Yet another wrinkle is private ownership itself. In the late 1980s Monterey County approved an ordinance that mandates any desal plant located within the county be publicly owned. Should private companies have any more control over our water supplies, or should desal, if it proceeds, be publicly owned and controlled?
San Diego farming advocates have argued that desal would help save agriculture in the region, stressed by drought and Delta water delivery cutbacks. But as Israel has discovered, desalinated water is actually harmful to agriculture, as the water lacks vital minerals and nutrients the plants need to thrive.
Environmentally friendly alternatives do exist, particularly sub-surface extraction, where salt water is taken from beneath the ocean floor, through beach wells, using sand as a kind of filter. This is being proposed for the Monterey Bay and has been studied for Dana Point in Orange County. But the momentum seems to be instead toward the larger surface plants, using either reverse osmosis or multi-stage flash distillation. As these can produce more water, the possible profits are correspondingly higher for the private companies involved in these projects.
Solar power is also a possibility. World View Water claims to offer a desalination technology powered by the sun that would produce potable water without the carbon pollution or the dependence on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.
Finally, we need to ask if desalination is even necessary. In 2006 the Pacific Institute released a report Desalination With A Grain of Salt that argued desalination is likely much more expensive than conservation strategies and suggested desalination should be, at best, a last resort. The onset of drought in much of California, the likelihood that global warming will reduce the Sierra snowpack dramatically, and the fact that several parts of California – such as the Central Coast – have already overshot its carrying capacity and are overdrawing local water sources all suggest that desalination should be on our list of solutions to our looming crisis.
If desal is going to be part of 21st century California, we need to do it right. We need to not do further damage to our oceans, to our warming atmosphere, to our unsustainable dependence on fossil fuels. Smart desalination offers many benefits – but dumb desalination will simply make our problems a whole lot worse.
Aquafornia – fantastic news aggregator covering every aspect of water issues in California
Poseidon Resources’ website on the Carlsbad desalination project