Desalinization Debate Forces Environmentalists to Face Reality

Charles Meyer Desalination Facility (City of Santa Barbara)
City of Santa Barbara

As California’s drought continues, desalinization has emerged as an answer to the state’s chronic water shortages. As the Orange County Register notes, desalinization would provide a near-infinite supply of water at only twice the price. The main objection of environmentalists is that desalinization uses up to 50% more electricity, meaning more fossil fuels might be burned to make water, setting back efforts to fight climate change. It is an objection that is looking less and less serious.

The damage caused by climate change is still only theoretical. Scientists have yet to prove a link between the global rise of surface temperatures–which has slowed dramatically in the last 20 years–and California’s extreme drought.

Moreover, the kind of increase in greenhouse gas emissions that desalinization would cause would barely register on the global scale, and would be offset by the reductions in emissions the U.S. has been achieving for nearly a decade by switching to natural gas.

In contrast, the environmental damage done by pumping groundwater–the only choice many Californians have had–is concrete, local and probably permanent.

In the Central Valley and other farming regions, the drop in the water table has been so dramatic that the ground itself has subsided, making large areas of land harder to cultivate. Desalinization could replace at least some of the water that leaves the interior of the state today for thirsty, growing coastal communities.

One comment in the Register article suggests the real reason that environmentalists resist desalinization: they want to use water scarcity as an opportunity to force permanent changes in Californians’ lifestyles. Certainly some changes are long overdue: using water more responsibly, planting water-efficient gardens, and so on. But desalinization would also achieve that by raising the price of what many consider a virtually “free” commodity.

A win-win–except for the most extreme green ideologues.


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