The same old arguments against desalination keep getting resurrected: It’s too expensive, too energy intensive, plus wastewater recycling and conservation by themselves can solve the drought problem. When put in the context of climate change, imported water and perpetual drought, none of these arguments make sense.

Climate scientists are unequivocally telling Southern Californians to prepare for drought as the “new normal” (we are now experiencing the hottest year on record in the midst of the fifth year of punishing drought). Because the sale of Carlsbad desalinated water is governed by contract, the cost of water to ratepayers has been limited to approximately $5 a billing, regardless of how much it cost to build the facility. Whereas the cost of imported water, which all of Southern California is dependent on, had gone up more than 6 percent a year before the drought and is predicted to rise as the commodity becomes more scarce due to drought, demand and fights over the water, which continue to escalate both within California and inter-state in the case of Colorado River water.

Commentary - in-story logoOpponents of desalinated water always refer to energy use without putting it in the context of importing water and other daily electrical uses. It takes approximately 14,000 kilowatt hours per million gallons to import water to Southern California, and approximately 15,000 kilowatt hours to produce the same million gallons from desalination, so it’s essentially a wash. It takes 7.6 kilowatt hours to produce a daily supply of desalinated water for the average household using Carlsbad water, substantially less than other daily uses: 24 kilowatt hours for central air conditioning; 13.2 kilowatt hours to charge an electric vehicle, 12.5 kilowatt hours for electric hot water and 19.4kilowatt hours to run one server in a data center.—

Wastewater recycling and conservation are obviously necessary to do. By themselves, however, they cannot possibly overcome drought, dependence on imported water and expected population growth for the region. As drought and conservation take hold, there is less wastewater to recycle. Indeed, the Orange County Water District, now negotiating to purchase the entire 50 million gallons a day from the proposed Huntington Beach plant, has predicted a substantial shortfall of water by 2035, and that’s despite its wastewater recycling and conservation programs. And it is important to note that conservation means water districts will inevitably raise rates to cover the loss of income from water purchases by consumers.

The fact is, desalination’s time has come because it is necessary for water-starved 21st century water portfolios to include it. In addition to the proposed plants mentioned (Huntington Beach, RosaritoBeach and Camp Pendleton),desalination is on the drawing board across Southern California, including in Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo.

To continue to debate this issue out of context does a disservice to responsible discussion.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Robert Sulnick is the executive director of OC WISE, a coalition that supports the development of all forms of new drought-proof local water for Orange County. Poseidon Water, which owns and operates the Carlsbad Desalination Project, is a member of OC WISE.

    This article relates to: Desalination, Opinion

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    Joe Geever
    Joe Geever

    Mr Sulnick raises the "same old arguments" to support desal -- as a good salesman always does.

    Comparing the energy intensity of water to household appliances is the old trick of "comparing apples to oranges." If Mr Sulnick compared the energy of an old air conditioner or water heater to a new efficient model, his argument would be that the energy savings would be "essentially a wash." So why bother? Because we are trying to save energy -- even if it's a relatively marginal savings. And recent studies show that saving energy through water conservation is as effective as all our energy efficiency efforts (and cheaper).

    And the real energy demand (in terms water agencies use) are:

    - non-potable re-use = 400 killowatt hours (kw/h) pre acre foot;

    - potable re-use = 2246 kw/h per acre foot [including pumping it and re-treating it from groundwater storage];

    - Colorado River imported water = 2000 kw/h per acre foot;

    - State Water Project (pumping from Sacramento Delta) = 3200 kw/h per acre foot;

    - Carlsbad desal = 4693 kw/h per acre foot -- about 40% more than the second most energy intensive option.

    And climate change is not ONLY longer and hotter dry periods. It includes more intense rainfall when we get wet weather in the northern part of the State or the Colorado RIver basin. That trend is already recognizable in the climate record to-date. It means we need to change the management of our already "bought and paid" for infrastructure -- to import more water when it's available and store it in groundwater basins (basins that are now depleted) region-wide for the predictable dry periods. Conservation, whether during a drought or wet weather, allows the storage to go further and our supplies to be more reliable. THAT is the "new normal" -- not Mr Sulnick's one-sided prediction. 

    Unfortunately, water managers in Southern California recently argued that the rain we recently got in northern California meant they shouldn't have to conserve any more. That approach is not sustainable.

    Finally, Mr Sulnick is wrong that the cost of the desal water is fixed, and imported water costs will continue going up. Poseidon's contract allows price escalation for more expensive energy costs. And as the cost of energy goes up, the more energy-demanding option goes up disproportionately. It's hard to see how desal ever gets cheaper -- given it's twice as expensive to start with and 40% more energy demanding.


    jack paxton
    jack paxton

    Robert Sulnick  September 2, 2016 repeats the same old arguments in favor of desalination that have been made several times by SELLERS of desalination water. It is time we learn to live sustainably in this semi-desert climate where we chose to live. Conservation is working as exemplified by the SDCWA having to dump over half a BILLION gallons of desal water into their Otay Reservoir. Let's be stewards of the water we have and replace the old water infrastructure to help conserve what we have. Repairing leaks is costly in many ways.

    Janet Shelton
    Janet Shelton subscriber

    Blah, blah, blah.  I have heard similar arguments through many years of living here.  The end result is that use of water decreases as cost goes up.  And then costs go up even more and water use decreases more.  Plus technology has improved. 

    I use as an anecdote the behavior of my wealthy neighbors with large lots.  They are not rich like Rancho Santa Fe.  The big grass expanses are gone.  On either side of me are areas of nearly one acre which are sadly now bare dirt, not low water use plants.  Only small grassy area remain in front yards, and that's only about 20% of the properties.  The leaks have been fixed, though some sprinkler problems remain.  Water running down the curb has become rare.  Since the last drought in the early 2000s, I have seen little water hog vegetation going it.  My area mostly looks as green as it always did but lower water use.

    So it appears the trend is lower water use by most households and the argument for desal is so development can continue.  So should current residents subsidize developers and new people moving in?  It seems likely desal will be shoved down their throats, and they will continue this welfare for the rich.  It's San Diego's way of doing business.  The truth is there is plenty of water as long as we accept the reality that we must continue to cut usage.  Agriculture is another story and it seems likely that hotter weather and reduced rainfall continue will force more to change or fail.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    How about a bit more analysis of the effect water conservation has on customer consumption, leading to higher water prices, which will lead to further customer conservation, etc.  Given that water agencies will raise prices when customers use less, and customers will use even less when the water agencies raise prices, it looks like a beneficial cycle that will eventually lead to the most efficient use. How can we fully identify the projected reductions in regional water use due to these factors? 

    First lets identify the real projected demand in the face in increasing prices, then figure out how to fulfill that demand. How can the author can claim that wastewater recycling isn't enough, when we have barely begun to do it? Let's build the facilities to do it first, then see if it, combined with more efficient use, can fulfill our needs.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "Wastewater recycling and conservation...cannot possibly overcome...expected population growth for the region."

    So then fewer people will move here, clog our freeways, and drive up housing prices? What's the downside?

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann Who said move?  People being born here use water, and lots are born here, every day.  Birth rate is still higher than death rate.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Rick Smith That's true. Population growth is births plus in-migrants minus (deaths plus out-migrants).

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann  "So then fewer people will move here, clog our freeways, and drive up housing prices? What's the downside?"  

    The downside might be that the people who live here with chronic water supply problems would have a lower quality of life. Your argument distills to we all should suffer for a slower rise in housing prices and traffic. There are better approaches to all three issues than making this a less desirable region for human habitation.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Richard del Rio Aren't our chronic water supply problems a sign that we should stop trying to make the region attractive for more people to move here?

    Richard del Rio
    Richard del Rio subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @Richard del Rio No, we just disagree. To not address supply in housing, transportation and water is folly and will only lead to a lower quality of life. 

    Housing, for example, is substantially more expensive than need be because we have regressive zoning and tax policies, excessive coastal limitations and environmental procedures that limit supply artificially. We simply need a diversity of housing options at every price point of the market. The infrastructure of transportation needs to improve in coordination with smarter growth. Greater density, more mass transit options and less reactionary nimbyism. San Diego's growth should promote something other than just the car-centric single family neighborhoods of post WWII America.

    Why would we go down the path of unnecessary scarcity with water? I am all for conservation but not in isolation from an improved water supply, including reliability. 

    Do you think would be San Diegans will be deterred from moving here before we yelp endlessly about how miserable we are? That is a policy journey I do not want to our govt. to invest in or future generations to experience.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Richard del Rio "Why would we go down the path of unnecessary scarcity with water?"

    A person needs 12 gallons of water per day for drinking and sanitation. In San Diego, we use 150 gallons per person per day. So we are a LONG way from "unnecessary scarcity with water".