With the Sierra Nevada snowpack at its lowest level since 1950, California Governor Jerry Brown announced last week that he would implement the first mandatory water reductions in state history. But Brown also called on districts to streamline permitting practices for water projects, and to invest in new water infrastructure technologies. Brown’s comments amount to his first vocal support for widespread desalination (or desalinization).
“Today we are standing on dry grass where there should be five feet of snow, “Governor Brown said at a press event in the Sierra Nevada mountains. “This historic drought demands unprecedented action. Therefore, I’m issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reductions across our state.”
The snowpack typically supplies 30 percent of California’s water. But on March 30, a Water Resources Department survey found the water content was just five percent of the average amount in the northern Sierra Nevada and six percent in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. At four key survey sites, the WRD found no snow at all.
The previous record low snowpack of 25 percent, on average, was set during the severe 1977 drought and was repeated again in 2014.
To battle the state’s ongoing drought, the Brown ordered the State Water Resources Control Board to implement a 25 percent reduction by local water agencies. He also called on districts to adopt conservation pricing strategies, to streamline their permitting practices for water projects, and to invest in new water infrastructure technologies.”
The CalWatchDog.com blog commented, “While conservation is the short term key to the state’s short-term drought response, those latter provisions of the governor’s plan have many Californians turning to desalination as a promising long-term solution to the state’s water needs.”
Scott Maloni, vice-president of Poseidon Water, a water development company that specializes in desalination, told the WatchDog, “The Governor’s Executive Order issued today is consistent with the policy goals established in the state’s Water Action Plan and clearly demonstrates his commitment to developing new local water supplies including seawater desalination.”
For centuries, sailors have used techniques to remove salt from sea water and supplement drinking water. There are more than 17,000 active desalination plants in 150 countries across the globe. The International Desalination Association estimates that approximately 21.1 billion gallons of water ae desalinized each day to serve the needs of 300 million people, mostly in the Middle East.
Despite all the water in earth’s oceans, less than half a percent of human water needs are satisfied with desalinated water. To desalinate the one acre-foot a year that a family of five consumes would only double the average water production cost to about $2,000, according to a 2013 study by the state Department of Water Resources.
The real enemy of desalinization has been a burdensome permitting process that was designed to fight population growth along the California coast.
Carlsbad’s $1 billion desalination plant is scheduled to come online and produce 50 million gallons per day next year. But the privately funded Poseidon Water project was delayed by a protracted multi-year battle to gain permits from city governments and state agencies.
“They went through seven or eight years of hell to get here,” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, told the San Jose Mercury News. “But they stuck it out. They got it done. If it succeeds, it will encourage others to try. And if it fails, it will have a chilling effect.”
Poseidon Water is currently working to gain the final approvals from the California Coastal Commission to build an $892 million desalination plant in Huntington Beach next to an off.line Southern California Edison power plant. The completed project would produce 50 million gallons of water a day.
Poseidon agrees that streamlined permitting would significantly help the proposed Huntington Beach project become a reality. The company is more optimistic that the California Coastal Commission will vote to give final approvals and that the plant would be operational by 2018. The Orange County Water District announced in January its intention to buy all of the 56,000 acre-feet of desalinated water the plant produces each year.
President John F. Kennedy in 1962 spoke in favor of desalinization: “If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.”
The technology has driven the cost of desalinization down to the point where it is now economically viable. The longer the drought persists, the more water agencies will be willing to take on environmentalists to add “desal” plants to the mix of their water resources portfolio.
With the drought crimping their lifestyles, some environmental interest groups are beginning to soften their staunch opposition to desalinization. “If you’re going to do something like desal, you want to make sure you’re doing everything you can in terms of conservation, water recycling, water re-use,” Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network told KQED San Francisco, “and you don’t want unsustainable development that just perpetuates your problem, or the state’s problem.”