Environmentalists must learn to compromise

Desalination plants are necessary to quench the West's thirst


One of Aesop's fables is about a dog that found a bone nearly as big as he could carry. The dog trotted home to gnaw on his prize, but on the way, he caught sight of his reflection in a stream. Convinced that he was seeing another dog -- and that the other dog had a bigger bone -- he dropped his own to seize it, and he ended up, of course, with nothing.

I was reminded of the story recently at a public meeting on California's ever-worsening water woes. One of the speakers came from Poseidon Resources, a company that's been trying to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif. Environmental groups have filed lawsuits, challenging the project's permits. During the question-and-answer time, a committee member with the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation stood up to recount a number of problems with the project. The company's representative, Peter MacLaggan, began his response by telling the audience he was familiar with Surfrider; in fact, he said, "We're good friends."

He was facetious; Surfrider, a $3.5 million nonprofit dedicated to protecting beaches and oceans, has repeatedly objected to the Carlsbad desalination plant. So have several other groups, including San Diego Coastkeeper and the Sierra Club. Why? Because desalination consumes a lot of energy, and because the seawater intake will kill some fish.

Never mind that the power plant that already exists at that location kills more fish than a desalination facility would, and never mind that the desalination plant would be powered in part by solar energy. Many environmentalists simply don't like desalination as done with current technology. But we obviously need the water. What solution do they suggest? The usual answer you'll hear is conservation.

Conservation is a great thing, and sometimes it's been extremely successful. The city of Los Angeles, for example, emphasizes conservation and uses less water today than it did in 1987, despite a fast-growing population. But to claim that conservation by itself can solve the West's water crisis is shortsighted. California's population is projected to nearly double by 2050 if current trends continue. You can't conserve your way out of a drought.

Would it be ideal if we shut down golf courses and tore up our lawns to plant Astro-Turf? Yes, but we don't live in an ideal world. The West has a water crisis, and it stems from a simple problem: We've built our homes in deserts where nature never meant us to live. In order to stay here, we require a mix of solutions. There's no magic bullet that will do the trick. Some solutions may have environmental impacts, but almost every human activity implies an environmental impact. You might as well object that building a wind turbine kills some birds; it does, but just think about some of the alternatives, such as a coal-fired power plant.

Environmental impacts from desalination greatly concern several environmental groups, but it's hard to see why this is a high priority. If their concern is energy use, the Carlsbad project is powered in part by solar panels. If they're worried about altering the marine environment, over-fishing is undoubtedly more serious. The impacts of drawing water from other sources, such as rivers or groundwater, are more serious still.

So why do some environmentalists object to desalination? I've concluded it's out of a kind of wishful thinking: If only everyone were to conserve, if the population could stay at current levels, if we could find a solution that has no environmental impacts -- if, if, if. In this respect, environmental advocates are behaving no differently from residents who object to Orange County's "toilet-to-tap" project -- though they have no qualms about drinking recycled wastewater from the Colorado River. Perhaps all of us prefer to ignore the realities of difficult choices in the belief that somewhere a perfect solution exists.

The debate over water use in the West has been hampered by this kind of irrational thinking for years. Ultimately, we're going to have to discard our excess fastidiousness and make use of all the options for finding water -- and that may mean turning to seawater as well. If we wait for the technology to improve, perhaps a perfect solution might come along. But that assumes that a perfect solution exists, and that we have enough time to wait for it. Sometimes, as Aesop's dog discovered, it's better to take what you have rather than end up with nothing at all.

Jonathan Parkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in LaJolla, California.

Anonymous says:
Mar 31, 2009 08:25 PM
The tragic irony here is that not since the early 1970s has the environmental community been better positioned to move the world in a better direction. Yet many individuals and groups are forsaking the guarantee of "better" for the illusion of "perfect." Some of this stems from righteousness, some of it stems from ideology, but most of it stems from not recognizing the difference between an ideal and an improvement. Yes, we need to promote conservation. We need to do that today, tomorrow and for decades to come. We need to instill it as a social norm and we need to press for policies that codify it into law. We also need to recognize infrastructure will be build, refurbished and replaced. We need to have hard data to back up our positions. Every alternative has impacts. To ignore the impacts of one proposal while focusing exclusively on the impacts of another proposal is simply ideology. The citizens of this country are open to the messages of the environmental community. The group(s) that will have a lasting impact will be those that are able to meet people halfway and pull them along in the right direction.

Anonymous says:
Apr 01, 2009 07:53 PM
I reside in Carlsbad, CA. This project sits on the Aqua Hedionda Lagoon where 20 years ago I had the privilege to build California's smallest state inspected dam. Over 1+ MM cu. yd. of earth were moved to anchor into the terrain and dig out the detention basin. Wildlife were uprooted, foxes, varmin, hawks, etc... all had to abandon native chapparal for the heavy construction. Fish kill occurred from excavation operations downstream at the lagoon at one point. It was environmentally disruptive, damaging and at the time negatively impacting the environment.

Today the dam is colloquially referred to as "dog park", where resident's exercise, walk their animals and use the area for recreation. The lagoon is protected from torrential rain runoff events and _all_ the wildlife remains as it was before the start of construction. The water feature is a collection point for all genus of species and today my environmental sensibilities are tempered by this project.

It was recognized with two prestigious awards for its water conservation, recycling and reuse. The heavy civil projects are a community and environmental asset.

I have no connection with Poseidon nor the city of Carlsbad, but I love this community and water is the number #1 resource. The more the better, whether through desalination or DWR allocation its future depends upon having enough to support itself and its growth.

Anonymous says:
Apr 01, 2009 08:13 PM
Desalination on the shores of large oceans is one thing but in the high desert southwest it is more than different. Please distinguish these two.
In New Mexico, for example, there are basins of groundwater-huge mucky deposits of brine water saturated gravels, clay membranes, and limestone escarpments somewhere 5,000 to 10,000 feet down there for sure but test wells, lots of test wells, must be dug and plenty hit nothing at all.
 More specifically, in the Tularosa Basin, the decades of urban inspired desertification include capping of mountain springs to bring natural water flow (that used to saturate canyon wetlands)to the urbanized fawcet. Restoration of the wetlands would provide, theoretically, more pure water at a cheaper cost than the ever changing plans for desalination.
   Until mountain health in the southwest is addressed, increasing desertification will compound the urban growth where it never should have been in the first place.
  Soil moisture is another criticle factor that has been completely marginalized--soil moisture in the shallow playa ecology is critical and threatened by large scale pollyanna bureaucracies with technology as their justification to lower the surface level of moisture.
Each bioregion here is different-don't lump us with the far distant shoreline deals.
Anonymous says:
Apr 01, 2009 09:16 PM
I too believe in difficult choices, just not the ones promoted by your author. Indeed I don't think it's a "difficult choice" to perpetuate our current water-wasting lifestyle through the enablement of desalinated water - no, that's politics and catering to our sense of entitlement. How about bringing our water consumption to a comparable level as that found in Barcelona, Spain, or Queensland, Australia (+/-40 gals/person/day)? Considering our current consumption is 100+ gals/person/day (as high as 400-600 is some Southern California communities) we would see a significant benefit. I would rather we exhaust simple solutions first before moving up to these more expensive and impactful technologies.

To say we'll lose a few fish is dismissive. Even minor increases in salinity will dramatically decrease the hatching of grunion eggs, for example. Have we adequately studied what else might be impacted by subtle changes in the ocean's chemistry? History shows that we usually act first, regret later.

Contrary to the author's statement, historical ecology buffs know that coastal Southern California was not a desert. Semi-arid, yes. The region's water tables were once high, but profligate water consumption & urban development, without regard for the ecosystem, altered our landscape - desertified it, if you will. As a native of Southern California, I challenge all of us to face the reality of our impacts to our ecosystem and make the difficult choice to learn to live within its means, instead of marginalizing those who advocate for this.
Anonymous says:
Apr 01, 2009 10:12 PM
I have this idea from a guy named Ed Abbey, who had this simple saying: "The desert always wins."

Given that the Southwest is generally supposed to get drier, as well as hotter, maybe 5 million people (or more) need to move out of the Southland? Back to St. Louis, Chicago or Cincinnati.
Anonymous says:
Apr 04, 2009 01:53 PM
Couple more comments, Johnathan. First, I'm going to assume this is a partially recycled story from your day job with the San Diego Reader, if my Googling is true. What "compromise" questions did you ask of the desal folks? Or what water restriction questions, let alone conservation questions, did you ask of city officials in any community in the south end of the Southland?

And, knowing what the real problem is, are you lining up to be one of the 5 million people that needs to move out of the area, unless you'll cut your water consumption in half or more?
Anonymous says:
Apr 01, 2009 11:12 PM
Actually, environmentalists have been compromising for decades when they have had the opportunity to even get a seat at a table where decisions are made -- not very often as evidenced by the degraded state of our planet.

First, we can't really take seriously projections for 2050 in an age of climate chaos where the current dismal set of circumstances are likely to spin out of control. What we are likely to see is depopulation as it becomes clear the arid west is progressively less able to support even the current population. Building one more desalination plant will just stave off the inevitable day of reckoning.

Second, it isn't the environmentalists that are unreasonable. It is the greatly disrupted biogeochemical cycles that are becoming unreasonable. They are finally beginning to take away our options as we squander our bounty in a wasteful auto-centric, sprawling McMansion binge.

Third, it is not just conservation of water that is the problem though it is part of it. It is an entire culture and lifestyle that is the problem. Our faith that technology will counterbalance our depredations is misguided. Technology is clearly failing in the battle against climate change.

Actually, there is nothing left to compromise.
Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2009 10:31 PM
Just wanted to echo John Faust's comments -- there is nothing left to compromise.

It's a little like what happened to Native Americans as the whites rolled west. Each treaty was a 'compromise' -- Native Americans gave up more land and were guaranteed the rest forever. They compromised their way to near oblivion, and the same is being done to our ecological systems and the environment.
Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2009 05:39 AM
The notion that desalination alone without conservation will be able to address the future water needs of places like Southern california is yet another tired example of Fantastical thinking.
I agree with the other commenter and Edward Abbey _ The desert always wins. Southern California and most of northern california along with major parts of the American West, will become completely unlivable in the next two decades based on current water usage patterns. These personal water use patterns must change Drastically. --------I live in urban california. In our house, we use approximately 10-30 gallons of water a day, far far below the average of up to 400 gallons a day per household. As in Most Households in Japan currently, we have begun taking showers, then using the warm shower water to wash clothes in. Afterwards, water is then used a third time to flush the toilet with. But things like taking 55 gallons of water to wash a single load of clothes in a machine is not sustainable, even with desalination. This is not enough water in the West to waste it---Our lives here are changing so so quickly with Global Climate Change. You have only to go into the nearest hillside to dig for five minutes to see how dry the soil is in most places in California now. It is pure fantasy to think that Desalination will be the major tool to address our water problems here in the west. Just ask the old-timers--they know how to live with 'Drought' because 'Drought' is the dominant condition of the American West. thank you.
Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2009 01:57 PM
We have, over decades, seen many comments about local and world economies where the contribution of population growth to scarcity of essential materials that include food, energy, grazing land, and housing is mentioned but dismissed without considering the fundamental part played by size of population. It would help us all if those discussing shortages of water, housing, and agricultural products would thoroughly study Adam Smith; AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE WEALTH OF NATIONS 1776-1779, and Malthus; AN ESSAY ON THE PRINCIPLE OF POPULATION 1876. These authors are often mentioned by politicians and economists who have never read these publications, much less understood them.
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 10:32 PM
I second this comment, and add that in this commentary, as usual, rampant population growth is considered a given. It is only a given if we keep going to ridiculous lengths (technological and otherwise), and going further out on a limb, to accommodate it.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity
<a href="http://www.growthbusters.com">www.growthbusters.com</a>
Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2009 03:06 PM
The waste we see with water use in the US may be just another symptom of our excess desire for material things. I have battled coal-fired power plants and the infamous Las Vegas pipeline that will de-water areas of eastern NV and western UT the size of Vermont. All for the excess of Las Vegas.

In studying this issue I have concluded that water efficiency/conservation/advanced management and technology can obviate the need for massive projects. Simply put, if Las Vegas at 264gals/capita/day were to regulate to the 40gals/capita/day of Brisbane, AU, they could support 6 times the population with their current allocation.

The problem is not water but problematic water managers. Are you ready for this? Pat Mulroy (Dir Southern Nevada Water Authority) stated that LV is so transient, the population wouldn’t agree to strict conservation measures. Our response: Do they not stop for red lights and stop signs?
Anonymous says:
Apr 02, 2009 03:47 PM
That's a pretty big brush you paint with, Jonathan. The title would have been more apt as "Three Carlsbad environmentalists at a hearing need to compromise".

Water is still too cheap in the west. Costs for diversions, storage, treatment, and runoff need to be shifted more to the consumer and away from the federal and state governments. It won't be treated as the precious resource it is until the price conveys that message. Incentives to create consumer products that use less water are less too when water is cheap. If the price accurately reflected the value of water, I doubt a desalination plant would be needed at this time.

I don't think privatization is the answer, but it might be the only thing that get people's attention.
Anonymous says:
Apr 03, 2009 10:37 AM
Your article does not address sustainability and I object to the idea that it is worth it to 'Kill some fish" in order to quench the thirst of giant cities. Think of it as trying to get by on the water we have without creating additional environmental disasters.
Anonymous says:
Apr 03, 2009 04:20 PM
This piece is long on provocation and short on facts. Parkinson writes, “You can’t conserve your way out of a drought.” A good sound bite, but it’s flat wrong. In fact, Southern California did conserve its way out of a drought in the late 80's and early 90s. As Parkinson notes, L.A. uses less water today than it did in 1987, despite adding more than 500,000 people. Conservation works.

Sadly, despite drought warnings, the San Diego metro area has failed to respond. In fact, since 1992 (after the end of the last drought), the San Diego metro area has also added 500,000+ people, but its total water use through 2008 increased by nearly 190,000 acre-feet, almost 38%! At the same time as San Diego’s water use has been on the rise, an aggressive conservation program has enabled the City of Long Beach to reduce its per-capita water use to an impressive 107 gallons per day. The San Diego metro area’s per-capita use is more than 50% higher overall, and more than double that in inland areas. In Australia, per-capita water use is now often below 50 gallons per day. The potential for conservation is huge and, in San Diego, barely tapped.

Parkinson’s argument seems to be that although desal may be bad (it “consumes a lot of energy” and “will kill some fish”), some other things are worse. That’s not a compelling argument, especially when good options – such as conservation, accelerating wastewater recycling and reuse, and implementing smart land-use planning – are very much available.

Baseless calls for compromise (which in this case read more like an exhortation to abandon principles and ignore facts) don't advance the contentious debate over western water. There may be good reasons to pursue ocean desalination. This article, however, doesn’t offer any.
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 06:28 PM
It is hard to know where to start in response to this misleading opinion piece that seems to even miss the point of the High Country News article, well written and researched by Tony Davis, in the November 21, 2008 issue- look deeper into the issue and you continue to find more concerns, as these comments continue to reflect. As the comments above have eloquently stated, the issue is not one of the need for environmentalists to compromise but rather to open a more rational discussion on water usage and waste in the west and to that extent we have moved forward. It is disturbing to see blaming the messenger, as environmentalists, or in particular Surfrider, when, in fact, Surfrider has done more to promote using untapped local water resources, such as their "ocean friendly gardens" partnerships with local water agencies while reducing runoff and promoting appropriate landscaping without polluting the ocean.

Involvement with a variety of environmental groups on this issue began when a meeting was convened to support ocean water desalination with water agencies and there were more questions than answers. The questions include why is ocean desal subsidized at a higher rate than water conservation? Why aren't proven alternatives to the killing open ocean intakes such as beach wells used? And aren't the cost-effective, environmentally beneficial alternatives, including capturing stormwater and urban runoff-while treating it for recharge, the first responses that you should do? Suddenly, groups that specialized in ocean and fisheries management were asking about making greywater-onsite household water reuse-and rainwater cisterns available rather restricting people abilities to use local water supplies-as both are limited by regulations in California. By that time I'm sure the water agencies regretted putting us all into the same room, as we hadn't always talked to one another on what had been our separate issues.

Now, years later, there still haven't been any answers but projects have pushed forward by their own weight compelling groups to challenge not the technology in general but the application. For example, when used for brackish or wellhead clean up, we do not oppose desalination. We have supported beach wells or slant drilling research and the need for more pilot projects with transparency with results, as many public agencies have done first. We have actively promoted using the same technology on reclaimed wastewater rather than continuing to dump it, less treated, to the ocean and streams.

Numerous reports, including those from regulatory agencies like the California Coastal Commission, have come out reaffirming our concerns, including Pacific Institute, World Wildlife Fund, and Food and Water Watch. All of these are linked on our website: www.desalresponsegroup.org along with news articles, references, and proposals.

Smart cities, like Long Beach and Los Angeles have committed to doing the first things first and wait for others to hopefully solve the problems. Tampa Bay and the Yuma Desalter remain the only large-scale projects in this country and they have been unfilled promises and money pits. Santa Barbara built a desal plant in the midst of a long drought and it remains idle. Catalina Island built a desal plant as back up for development and it has been hardly used. Why? So many alternatives come first and we are not yet a desert, Los Angeles gets a surprising 15 inches on average.

So, while the fable was cute it was inappropriate, perhaps the dog dropped the bone into the pond not believing that all of that water was being wasted. Let's not exchange one problem for a worse one.
Anonymous says:
Apr 06, 2009 08:41 PM
Don't even dare make a peep about the Hispanic community being the one overwhelmingly contributing to population growth in California & the West (as they pile 4 & 5 children into those 15 yr old Suburbans, oblivious to the necessity for their families to stop having so many babies), for you'll be shouted down so fast as a "racist" you won't know what hit you.
Anonymous says:
Apr 23, 2009 11:14 AM
How sad to see this piece associated with such a venerable institution as HCN. We desperately need leadership to begin the hard process of retooling for sustainability. Folks contributing to HCN should be visionaries, not compromisers.