Water conservation

A parched West remains divided over desalinated seawater

MONTEREY, Calif. – Drought-ridden communities along the California coast are exploring innovations and investments to ensure residents have access to clean water. But seawater desalination, a proposed solution, has caused heated debate, as some environmentalists say the process is inefficient, expensive and wasteful.

The California Coastal Commission will decide next month whether to approve a private company’s application to build a $1.4 billion seawater desalination facility in Huntington Beach, southeast of California. Los Angeles. An approval would limit a 15-year permitting process to bring Southern California its second large-scale seawater desalination facility, joining another in Carlsbad that fully opened in 2015.

This facility, just north of San Diego, supplies the region with one-tenth of its drinking water. Producing 50 million gallons per day, it is the largest facility of its type in North America.

Many countries with limited access to fresh water, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, depend on desalination. Worldwide, there are more than 21,000 desalination plants in more than 120 countries. In the American West, the technology has not yet been widely used and remains controversial. But two years of drought have prompted officials to find new ways to offset the severe depletion of aquifers and reservoirs, prompting California, Arizona and other states to consider expanding desalination.

On California’s central coast, a company is developing a seawater desalination plant that would supply drinking water to communities from Santa Cruz south to Monterey. In the southern part of Orange County, near Doheny State Beach, the coastal community may soon have a smaller desalination facility as well.

Desalination can provide a reliable water supply to help address shortages in the region, said Stephen Sheldon, who supports the proposed Huntington Beach facility and is chairman of the Orange County Water District. This council manages the county’s groundwater basin, which provides most of the area’s drinking water.

Desalination is just one part of a larger set of solutions, Sheldon said, which includes recycling wastewater and preventing the dumping of millions of gallons of clean, treated water into the Pacific Ocean.

“The best defense against a drought is the offense of developing new water supplies,” he said. “Conservation cannot be the only solution to managing the water supply in our arid region.”

Sheldon proposed a ballot initiative that would have eased state restrictions on building new desalination plants and redirected state dollars to those projects. The initiative, however, failed to garner enough signatures for the November ballot.

The proposed facility has the support of several California leaders, including Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom and Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize. In a column published in the Orange County Registry earlier this month, Delgleize wrote: that “the environmental benefits of the facility are substantial”.

She was referring to the fact that even though the desalination process uses significant amounts of energy, communities save energy in the long run since the water is not transported from elsewhere in the state. She did not respond to an interview request.

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But some green groups say Orange County doesn’t need the Huntington Beach desalination plant. The county has done a good job managing its water, maintaining its groundwater supply and recycling wastewater to replenish its aquifers, said Sean Bothwell, executive director of the advocacy group California Coastkeeper Alliance. The group continues a regional water authority in state superior court to block the project.

A facility that can produce 50 million gallons per day like the proposed plant in Huntington Beach, enough to supply 8% of the region’s drinking water, would have high economic and environmental costs, he said.

It takes a lot of energy to remove all the salt and impurities from seawater. A study by the Pacific Institute, a think tank that focuses on water issues, found that while desalination has become more energy efficient over the past four decades, it still uses more energy per gallon of water than most other water supply and treatment options.

“It looks like a silver bullet to solving our water crisis,” Bothwell said. “But it will increase water rates, it’s not good for climate change or the ocean and we have cheaper options available to meet our water supply needs.”

Bothwell does not oppose all desalination projects. But he wants communities to do a better job of capturing rainwater and recycling wastewater first.

Some environmentalists also worry about the effect of desalination on marine life.

When seawater is treated in a desalination plant, half of what is left is a highly concentrated salty substance called brine. When brine is returned to the ocean, it can create oxygen-depleted dead zones that can kill fish, said Charming Evelyn, chair of the water committee and vice chair of the Sierra Club chapter’s environmental justice committee. Angeles.

“Everyone thinks we can dip a straw in the ocean all we want without any consequences,” she said.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Board, one of nine regional water authorities in the state that can approve such projects, found that the company proposing to build the facility, Poseidon Water, had enough plans to protect sea life, such as using special screens when the plant draws water from the ocean. The company also intends to preserve the nearby 1,500-acre wetlands of Bolsa Chica. Poseidon Water officials were unavailable for an interview in time for publication.

Low-income residents are also concerned about costs, said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation and director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. Desalination, he pointed out, was bound to an increase in water prices in San Diego. Poseidon Water said desalination costs the average San Diego household an additional $5 per month.

In one Analysis 2019 of the proposed Huntington Beach facility, Pierce and his co-authors found that the new facility would “moderately to severely exacerbate affordability problems” for low-income households.

“Where is the hard proof that this is going to be cheaper than alternative supplies and will actually benefit low-income communities?” he asked in an interview. “I would love to see it, but I didn’t.”

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Instead, Californians can help fill the state’s water supply gap through personal conservation, said Newsha Ajami, head of strategy and development for research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Earth and Environmental Sciences Area, which is sponsored by the US Department of Energy and operated by the University of California.

People can reuse shower water or rainwater to supply toilets and maintain gardens and lawns, or save water by fixing leaky fixtures and pipes, she said. . San Francisco enacted an ordinance in October requiring new buildings of at least 100,000 square feet to include an on-site water reuse system. The city also reuses water to irrigate parks and golf courses.

“Every drop of water you waste is a drop of water that is unpolluted and does not need to be treated,” she said. “We have to be aware.”

But desalination offers an opportunity to avoid painful water reductions in the name of conservation and provides a consistent source of water if drought persists for years, said Edward Ring, co-founder and principal investigator at California Policy. Center, a conservative think tank. It should be included in an overall strategy for long-term water security, he added. People, he said, shouldn’t have to sacrifice their lawns or other amenities to save water.

“There is no theoretical limit that you could get out of the ocean. Any. Zero,” Ring said. “The idea that we can’t have an abundance of water in California just doesn’t go down.”

It’s not just California that’s talking about seawater desalination. In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey proposed last month to spend $1 billion to invest in new water supplies, including desalination.

As part of a proposal, described in a 2020 binational report designed by the US government, the Mexican government and the water agencies of Arizona, California and Nevada – these western states would help pay for a new desalination facility in Mexico along the Gulf of California. In exchange for increasing Mexico’s water supply, states would be allowed to draw from Mexico’s portion of the Colorado River. The project could start in the next decade.

Arizona is also exploring the desalination of brackish and slightly saline groundwater. Water experts say it’s a much more cost-effective and energy-efficient way to increase water supply. States like Florida and Texas have made substantial investments in the desalination of brackish water, which often happens when freshwater meets seawater. It can also happen from agricultural runoff or soil minerals.

The Antioch community in the California Delta between San Francisco and Sacramento opened the region’s first brackish water desalination facility last year, which will purify water from the San Joaquin River. The $110 million project was primarily funded by the state.

Seawater desalination should have a place in California, said Meagan Mauter, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. In geographically isolated coastal communities that lack access to fresh water, desalination can be an invaluable investment, she said.

“Water desalination is ideal for coastal communities to bridge this gap between supply and demand,” Mauter said. “But there are also many other sources that are cheaper and lower in carbon and more flexible than seawater desalination.”