Doubt Cast On California Desalination
September 23, 2012

Report: Future Of California Desalination Plants In Doubt

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports — Your Universe Online

Despite years of planning and millions of dollars of investment, desalination plants have done little to provide fresh water to the citizens of California, a Saturday Associated Press (AP) report has revealed.

Desalination is the term used to describe the processes by which salt and other minerals are removed from saline water, making it suitable for drinking, irrigation, and other such uses. It has been used in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other Middle Eastern nations for many years, according to AP writers Jason Dearen and Alicia Chang, but has not yet gained a foothold in the U.S., due in part to environmental regulations.

"Squeezing salt from the ocean to make clean drinking water is a worldwide phenomenon that has been embraced in thirsty California, with its cycles of drought and growing population," Dearen and Chang said, noting that there are currently 17 proposals for the building of desalination plants statewide.

However, "many projects have been stymied by skyrocketing construction costs, huge energy requirements for running plants, regulatory delays and legal challenges over environmental impacts on marine life," they added. "Only one small plant along Monterey Bay is pumping out any drinking water."

A $7 million plant in the town of Marina has been closed down due to rising energy costs, the AP said. A Carlsbad plant built by Poseidon Resources LLC was originally scheduled to begin operation this year, but is now unlikely to open until at least 2016, at a cost of $900 million.

The same company is being challenged by environmental organizations over plans to build a similar facility in Huntington Beach while a proposed desalination plant in Marin County was "scrapped for a desalination facility despite two decades of planning and millions of dollars spent on a pilot plant," Dearen and Chang said.

While there are multiple ways to remove the salt from the saline water, plants that use pumps to push water at high pressure through membrane filters require massive amounts of energy, as they must be operating almost constantly, the AP said. Furthermore, desalinated water is often more expensive than water brought in by traditional pipes, and the process is more expensive than conservation technologies like low-flow toilets.

Libby Pischel, a spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District, told Dearen and Chang that, "Right now, conservation costs less than desalination." Additionally, coastal commission water expert Tom Luster told the reporters that residents "are realizing that desalination isn't a magic fix to the state's water issues."