HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA— Water experts in California are weighing in on the drawbacks of seawater desalination plants as the State Lands Commission prepares to hold a hearing on a billion dollar desalination project in Orange County. Scientists, researchers and policymakers agree that desalination should be an option of last resort due to its high cost and excessive energy demands. The experts cited below warn that desalination can unnecessarily burden ratepayers, and recommend that communities prioritize cheaper and more sustainable solutions, such as conservation, efficiency, stormwater capture and recycled water.
“One big-picture solution [to California’s growing water affordability crisis] is not to invest in overly expensive water sources such as desalination, which far outstrips the cost of water recovered via conservation and recycling. Having to pay for a huge desalination plant that isn’t necessary will really burden low-income residents,” said Dr. Lauren Feinstein of the Pacific Institute to the Los Angeles Times on July 7, 2017.
“Let’s tackle the cheaper, most cost-effective things first: improving water-use efficiency, expanding water reuse and capturing more storm water. If we do the right things in the right order, we can avoid spending billions on what ultimately could be an expensive white elephant,” wrote Heather Cooley, Water Program Director at the Pacific Institute, in the Sacramento Bee on June 14, 2017.
“We cannot rely on ocean desalination to meaningfully reduce the stress on freshwater ecosystems, particularly the Bay Delta and its tributaries, the heart of California’s water supply,” wrote Leon Szeptycki and Dr. Newsha Ajami, researchers at Stanford University’s Water in the West program, in the San Jose Mercury News on June 1, 2017.
“The average price per acre-foot of water produced by seawater desalination is four to eight times higher than alternative sources. Estimates for proposed seawater desalination plants in California range from $1,900 to $3,000 per acre-foot…Alternative water resources, including imported water, efficiency, and recycled water, are all generally significantly cheaper,” reads a report, “Proceed with Caution: California’s Droughts and Desalination in Context,” published in March 2016 by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
NRDC’s report also references Poseidon’s San Diego facility as example of the outsized energy demands of power desalination. “Desalinating water uses more energy, per unit of water, than any other source…For example, the Carlsbad seawater desalination plant is currently the most energy-intensive water source in the region’s water supply portfolio and requires 52 percent more energy per acre-foot than water delivered to San Diego from the State Water Project.”
“Desalination should be used as an option of last resort. Nearly the totality of the testimony between our several hearings agreed that desalination should only be considered after a region has been successful with conservation and has embarked on substantial water reclamation projects as well. Approved projects should be well-sited, well- sized, and minimize environmental impacts to the extent possible,” reads a report by the California State Assembly Select Committee on Water Consumption and Alternative Sources published in March 2016. The same report recommended that the state invest first in projects that “reduce greenhouse gases, improve storage capacity in a warm climate, and are not at risk due to sea level rise.”