Drought is drying up California again. Along with deadly wildfires, that means water shortages and rationing.
The latest: On August 3, the California State Water Board voted 5-0 to end water diversions to 5,700 farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed.” Failure to comply will result in penalties as high as $1,000 per day,” reported California Globe.
No one knows how long the drought will last, but the last one parched the state for five years, 2012-16. It was the worst in 500 years.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, in the last week of July, about half the state rated D4, meaning “Exceptional Drought,” the worst category. It included most of the Bay Area and part of Los Angeles County. Most of the rest of the state rated D3, “Extreme Drought.”
Sacramento knew this day was coming. That’s why the State Water Board adopted seawater desalination regulations in 2015, clearing the way for the proven technology to play a more prominent role in serving the state’s water needs.
In the long run, desalination also would help relieve the state’s North-South Water Wars. As long ago as the 19th Century, Mark Twain supposedly quipped, “In California, whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”
In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom killed the Twin Tunnels project of his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, reducing it to a single tunnel. The latest plan would cost $15.9 billion to carry the water from Northern California under the Delta down to Southern California. But the battle is far from over.
Desalination puts desal plants near water users, reducing the cost and length of conveyances. It’s part of a statewide water diversification strategy, “one tool in the tool box.”
Although California saw slight population decreases the past two years, that’s just a blip. U.S. Census figures show the population increased 2.4 million from 2010 to 2020. That’s a 6.5 percent boost in just a decade.
And many Inland cites have kept growing as people flee more expensive coastal areas. CalMatters reported, “Since January 2020, the populations of Merced, Manteca and Tracy in the north San Joaquin Valley and Banning and San Jacinto in Riverside County all grew by more than 2 percent.”
A crucial thing desalination plants provide is certainty. The Pacific Ocean is the largest reservoir in the world and always full. The plants operate whether or not there’s a drought. Desal is the only 100 percent climate-resistant water supply.
Due to vast technological innovations in recent year, desalination costs have come down sharply. The last drought cost the state $5 billion just in lost farm revenues. According to the Motley Fool investment site, “That same $5 billion could have built five new desalination plants to help prevent the next drought” – the one we’re now in.
Fortunately, the desalination of seawater now is advancing in the Golden State. According to a chart on the website of the California Water Boards, there are 12 “existing seawater desalination facilities.” Only two generate substantial water for people and industry. The Santa Barbara Desalination Plant provides 3 million gallons of water a day, covering 30 percent of the city’s needs.
The other is the much larger Carlsbad Desalination Plant, a public-private partnership between Poseidon Water and the San Diego County Water Authority. It has provided San Diego County with 80 billion gallons of drinking water in five short years. That’s enough for 400,000 homes.
California Water Boards also lists six “Proposed Seawater Desalination Facilities.” One is in Huntington Beach, where Poseidon nearly is finished permitting a sister plant to the one in Carlsbad. It’s expected to start construction in 2022, if approved by the California Coastal Commission later this year.
The facility will produce 50 million gallons of water per day of drought-proof drinking water, serving another 400,000 homes. That will be crucial for thirsty Southern Californians, especially if the drought continues.
In April, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board issued Poseidon Water a permit finding the proposed Huntington Beach facility complied with the state’s latest environmental regulations. Up next, the California Coastal Commission will rule whether to allow the construction of the plant – a decision that will decide the fate of seawater desalination technology across the state.
Among other things, the CCC will consider whether it agrees with the project’s mitigation requirements imposed by the Regional Water Board permit, which includes obligating Poseidon to maintain, enhance and restore the 1,500-acre Bolsa Chica Wetlands, five miles up the coast from the project site,” reported the Orange County Register. The paper noted the desal project has been supported by the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, an environmentalist group.
In sum, the desal plants are a win-win-win for California. People, industry and farms get water. Peace comes to the state Water Wars. And the environment is preserved.
That’s something to toast with a cool glass of desalinated water.
“Desalination must be included in any discussion of future water sources for Orange County."
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