A drinkable ocean

One of the remarkable attributes of California through the middle years of the 20th century was the state’s can-do attitude. It was this attitude that saw the state undertake thousands of public works projects – roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure – to prepare for the influx of the millions who clearly wanted to make California their home.

Today the state is more environmentally conscious, so contemporary projects are held to a higher standard regarding their impact on nature.

In combination, the can-do attitude and the attitude of reverence for nature can contribute a great deal to California life. The key is balance.

Today, water usage is among the areas profoundly affecting our environment and desperately in need of the old can-do attitude. The state just doesn’t have enough fresh water, and there is no single source that can provide adequate fresh water as the state continues to grow.

In fact, using too much water from rivers, lakes and aquifers is leading to environmental damage.

Some have suggested desalinated ocean water as a silver bullet solution. They are wrong.

But as part of a balanced approach – an approach that includes conservation and water recycling – desalination is essential.

The issue is more and more in the news, in part because of a proposed water desalination plant in Carlsbad that, if it comes online, will produce about 50 million gallons of fresh water per day.

There are, without doubt, environmental costs to desalination. It takes a great deal of power to desalinate seawater, so the primary environmental cost involves producing all that extra electricity. There are also costs in terms of coastal land use and some relatively minor ocean environment costs from intake and outflow.

More can be done to conserve and recycle water, without doubt. And these things should be done. But the state still needs a greater and more diverse supply of fresh water.

In 2002 the legislature directed the Water Resources Department to produce a report on desalination. That report, released in Oct. of 2003, said, “One of the primary findings is that economically and environmentally acceptable desalination should be considered as part of a balanced water portfolio…"

The report also said that “every region of California has unmet environmental water needs…"

It also said, “Desalination can provide a reliable supply during California’s periodic droughts.”

The state is taking too much fresh water from its environment, and during drought years the strain is particularly hard. Protesting water desalination because it uses too much electricity is a case of making perfection the enemy of the good.

There is no perfect solution. And, if there were, this state could not wait for it.

If we conserve and recycle water appropriately, every gallon of desalinated water is a gallon that does not have to be taken from California’s lakes, streams, and aquifers.

The time for desalination has come. It cannot be done without some tradeoffs, but it can be done in an environmentally responsible way. Californians should be supportive of desalination as a process that, though it has some environmental costs, has huge benefits both for people and for California’s precious ecosystems.