Ultimate solution?

Desalination may finally be coming of age in a thirsty West. Take it with a grain of salt.

 

CARLSBAD, CALIFORNIA

One after another, city councilmen, legislators, farmers, business leaders, tourism promoters and water managers took their turn at the dais and spoke. Everybody agreed: San Diego County faces a water crisis, and desalinated ocean water should be part of the solution. With drought and climate change a reality and imported water supplies threatened, residents need a reliable local water source. Conservation is important, they all said, but it can't do the job alone.

For 10 hours last November, the talk went on. But when the hearing was over, the decision was left in the hands of the California Coastal Commission. The group has made enemies of developers for years and built a reputation as one of the toughest environmental bodies in the country. But when it voted 9-3 to tentatively approve the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, it did so over the objections of at least a half-dozen environmental groups as well as the commission's own staff. Their concerns about potential fish kills and greenhouse gas emissions from the plant were drowned out by the vocal support of just about every politician and water district leader from Southern California.

"I hope you make your approvals so we can get on building the damn thing," said Carlsbad Mayor Claude "Bud" Lewis, in one of many hearings, summing up the general sentiment of his colleagues.

Now, after numerous hearings and a decade of planning, Lewis may get what he wants. Last November's vote cleared the way for Connecticut-based Poseidon Resources to build the $300 million plant. By this fall, the plant had secured all but one of its needed approvals. The San Diego Regional Water Quality Board still must sign off on Poseidon's plan to offset the plant's effects on fish, but that shouldn't be a problem.

Desalination was once regarded as a pipedream in the West, like towing icebergs from the Arctic or building canals to divert the Columbia River southward. But the technology has since improved, and now, with the population growing and fresh water supplies threatened by drought and global warming, all seven Colorado River Basin states are looking seriously at it. So are Florida, Texas and even the Northeast. Some officials call it the ultimate solution.

Nowhere is desalination more popular than in California, where nearly 20 plants are in the works. It's not hard to see why: Southern California's population has nearly tripled to 21.7 million since 1960, but its water supplies are shrinking.

Today, Southern California gets about 600,000 fewer acre-feet of water from the Colorado River each year than it did a decade ago. And with the San Francisco Bay Delta's ecosystem collapsing from diversions, drought, invasive species and pollution, a federal judge has ordered cuts in water deliveries to Southern California to protect the threatened Delta smelt. Southern California farmers took a 30 percent water cut this year, and city dwellers will face reductions next year if, as expected, the judge decides to protect more imperiled fish. This spring, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, declared a drought. By this fall, reservoirs had sunk to their lowest levels in 14 years, and officials were warning that they may have to cut statewide water deliveries from the California State Water Project by 85 percent next year.

Although desalination offers a guaranteed, drought-proof local supply, it needs more energy -- and churns out more greenhouse gases -- than virtually any other water source in the state. The pipes that suck seawater into many desal plants kill billions of fish larvae annually. And because desalinized water costs so much, some activists worry that it will put this basic necessity out of reach of the poor.

Desalination plants are fiendishly complex. Tom Pankratz, a Houston-based expert, calls desalination "the most complicated kind of infrastructure there is." The plants have to both pre-treat and treat water to render it drinkable. One Long Beach official calls the city's pilot plant "an O&M (operations and maintenance) nightmare." It took three years for Carlsbad city officials and Poseidon just to come to terms on how to run their proposed plant.

But the appeal of salt water won't go away. After all, it comprises 94 percent of the world's water supply, and it isn't running out.