The obvious solution to California’s drought is water. A lot of it.
A NASA analysis late last year found the state needs 11 trillion gallons to get out of the drought. And if it’s not coming from the sky, water agencies, politicians and regulators have said desalination may be the answer.
In Carlsbad, California, 400 crew members get a beautiful ocean view during their work days as they use cranes, giant wrenches, and lifts at a noisy construction site building that will eventually turn ocean water into drinking water.
“When this project is up in line this fall it will be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere,” Poseidon Water spokeswoman Jessica Jones said. It may end up being the largest but it took less than half-an-hour to see the whole thing.
The water comes in to giant concrete holding areas where silt and dirt are sifted out. The second phase is reverse osmosis. Row after row of pressurized vessels sit on top of one another, connected by thick, blue tubing. The clean water goes through the tubes and is funneled over to a new location where minerals are added. The final destination? A large pipe.
Right now, it sticks a few feet out of the ground, disappearing into the dirt, open and waiting for its connection. Eventually, it will deliver water to the San Diego County Water Authority’s aqueduct.
Jones says the plant and the pipeline on San Diego’s northern coast cost nearly $1 billion. Poseidon Water is a private company. They, along with private investors, are financing it through bonds. A facility being planned for Northern California’s Monterey County will cost just under $300 million.
The thing is, the state has done desal before. And it didn’t go so well.
Santa Barbara’s desalination plant was built in the early 1990’s, following a drought. But it was not used. It started raining and the cost of production meant it wasn’t worth it.
“This time around it’s a little different,” says Santa Barbara water resources manager Joshua Haggmark. They need to spend an additional $40 million dollars just to get the plant up and running but he’s confident there won’t be a repeat of past failures.
He says the facility “will use about 40% less energy” than it previously did. On top of that, he says the amount they pay for several sources right now is much closer to the cost of creating desalinated water.
Haggmark says they estimate it’ll cost $1,300 – $1,400 an acre foot to produce water. And while that’s a far cry from reservoir water, which goes for roughly $300 an acre foot, “right now, we pay about $1,200 an acre foot for recycled water… this year we’ve been buying water… and we’ve been spending about $1,500 an acre foot to buy water.” (The Metropolitan Water District estimates an acre foot provides the water needs of two average southern California families for a year.)
Jason Burnett is the Mayor of Carmel, and he’s behind the effort to get the desal plant built in Monterey County. But he looks at failed desal efforts around the world, as a warning that without the right mindset it could fail again.
“A big mistake was made in Australia,” according to Burnett, “they built a lot of desalination plants and most are sitting idle. Because as soon as the drought is over, and people over time invest in conservation anyway, you may not need them.”
Conner Everts is co-chair of The Desal Response Group, a non-profit that is concerned about desal. He has studied Australia’s water response and he agrees with Burnett. During the drought in the nineties, when Australia was building desal plants, they also invested in water saving techniques. “They built cisterns, they call them tanks to capture water locally,” says Everts.
He says some in California are practicing this now. Underneath the Santa Monica library is a large tank that can hold 200,000 gallons, “that will fill up with just a few heavy rains,” he notes. It worked in Australia, and when it started raining, they realized it wasn’t cost effective to use their desal plants.
Haggmark says in Santa Barbara they also learned that lesson, and have been engaged in similar conservation strategies. The difference is, he says, in the event the drought persists and there isn’t water to buy, their desal plant, if running at full capacity, could handle almost all the city’s water needs. But only as long as residents also conserve by cutting their existing usage by 25%.
San Diego is a lot bigger than Santa Barbara. Poseidon spokeswoman Jessica Jones admits their plant could only supply about 7% of San Diego County’s needs, but she says it’s still a key resource for the area. “90% of San Diego County’s water supply is imported and that means that during a drought those water supplies are needed elsewhere. That means San Diego needs to become less and less dependent on those imported supplies.”
Jones says it takes them a penny to produce a gallon of desal water, twice the cost of imported water. She also says they estimate the average household bill will go up by about $5 – $7 but not much more than that because, “the (desalinated) water here has been sold through a 30-year water purchase agreement at a fixed price.” If imported water rates rise, at least for the next three decades, she says their desal water should not.
Conner Everts is skeptical of those numbers. He says it can take up to three cents to produce a gallon of desalinated water. And while water may be sold at a fixed rate, power costs can fluctuate. Those energy costs concern Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett. He says in an effort to offset that they’re building their plant next door to a landfill and plan to use methane captured there to help power the facility.
But the end result of all these efforts, is badly needed water. And cities and counties are jumping on board.
Santa Barbara County has plans to get their facility back up and running by next fall. Monterey County is almost through their permitting process and hope to have a plant producing as much as 9.6 million gallons a day by 2018. The state water board says a handful of other cities are considering desalination plants, and smaller ones already exist currently though they only operate intermittently.
No one in the water world has said desalination is the only answer. Just a part of it.