Who says history does not repeat itself?

Common Sense Sustainability: Desalination

By Terry Mullin, V7/15 updated July 30, 2016

Who says history does not repeat itself?

Maybe my January 5, 2015 blog should have been entitled What Have We Learned About the California Drought Since the 1970’s and not 2009?

Shortly after the Governor held his mid-March press conference, others started scratching their heads and wondering why all of this sounded so familiar.  Again.  I lived through the first drought in my youth and wondered where this problem would go – I had friends who lost their jobs at car washes in Anaheim, California as they had to close due to the drought.  And as I had an early interest in the “environment” and business, I was concerned that politicians alone would not take sustained and long term actions to address this.  Because, after all, they are only in for the time of their term.  In youth, maybe I and others saw the writing on the wall.

One such individual was Phil Willon[i], reporter for the Los Angeles Times.  On April 1, 2015 he published an enlightening article that “reminded us” of this case of déjà vu.  For it was in Governor Brown’s first term that he called for water use restrictions.

History is not so far different from Governor Brown’s order on March 19th, 2015 for a 25% mandatory cut in water use, a response to the state’s devastating drought.  It came almost four decades after the governor faced a similar water crisis that pitted water-rich Northern California against its thirsty southern neighbors.

Almost forty years ago in 1977, during his first term as governor, Brown called for a similar voluntary 25% reduction in water use amid a two-year drought. But he met resistance from Southern California water districts. At the time, Brown blasted Los Angeles residents, specifically, for wasting water.  I lived through this time…I had school friends who lost jobs at car washes and doing lawn work.  At even an early age, it “frightened” me to think we lived in a time and state that had such a fragile and unprepared grasp of the importance of water.  As years passed, I grew even more concerned…we all should be more concerned.  Here and around the world.

“They have to cut back,” Brown said at a Los Angeles City Hall news conference with then-Mayor Tom Bradley, according to a 1977 Los Angeles Times report. “And they will cut back.”

Brown warned of mounting pressure from Northern Californians to take drastic action.

1977 Brown in LA

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, in 1977, discussing California’s water crisis at Los Angeles City Hall with L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, right, and state Assemblyman Eugene Gualco (D-Sacramento). (Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times.)

Fast forward to today:  While some local agencies adopted water restrictions at the time, Brown did not issue severe mandatory restrictions like the ones announced Wednesday.  As the first involuntary statewide water restrictions in California history, Governor Brown’s executive order contains a host of water-saving directives, including replacing 50 million square feet of lawns statewide with drought-tolerant landscaping as part of a partnership with local governments. Golf courses, cemeteries and other institutions with large landscaped areas also were ordered to reduce water consumption.

On March 19th, 2015 five days after the posting of The “browning” of California, Governor Brown announced a billion dollar drought relief plan.  For those who have not watched the YouTube broadcast of it from the CalChannel[ii] – which I suspect are most of you as only 71 views took place 10 days after the posting were noted – you should watch it in its entirety[iii], paying special attention to the opening remarks from all speakers.

And whereas desalination is not the only answer to our worldwide water crisis, I will address desalination primarily as it is clearly a recurring topic within the five major concepts of the common sense sustainability model.

It is a global problem:  According to the United Nations the planet is facing a significant shortfall (40 percent) in water supply by 2030, unless we dramatically improve the management of this precious resource.[iv]

UN Water

UN-Water on March 20, 2015 released its annual World Water Development Report[v] this year focusing on “Water for a Sustainable World”. The key message of the study is that the planet is facing a significant shortfall (40 percent) in water supply by 2030, unless we dramatically improve the management of this precious resource.

In a critical year for international action on sustainable development (in September the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals are due to be adopted by UN General Assembly) and climate change (in December a new global climate agreement is expected at COP21 in Paris), the report  demonstrates how water is critical to nearly every aspect of sustainable development, and how a dedicated SDG for water would create social, economic, financial and other benefits that would extend to poverty alleviation, health, education, food and energy production, and the environment.

The many sides to common sense sustainabilityWhereas this study’s topic of desalination is simply one example of the world-wide water crisis, the action/reaction of California should be used to highlight that “common sense sustainability” must be applied to reduce the impact of the water shortage everywhere.

No single solution is the answer:  it will take all of the “common sense sustainable” steps and more to address the drought.  And make no mistake about it – it is not just a “California thing,” but a situation that can impact the entire United States and beyond.  We are all in this together.  There is no greater crisis facing our state today than its lack of water.

common sense sustainability image

Using desalination technology to address the water crisis.

The Carlsbad desalination is scheduled to come online in late 2015 as referenced in this article: $734 Million Carlsbad Desalination Project[vi].  Budget numbers fluctuate up to “one billion dollars.”  And even if the budget number hits one billion dollars (likely), that would mean that 68 potential desalination plants would be possible (depending upon location, logistics, etc.)  And whereas the Carlsbad desalinated water will cost more for up to 112,000 households when in 2016 it is in full production[vii], a typical household of four people can expect to pay approximately $5 to $7 more per month when the plant begins producing water as early as fall 2015[viii]BUT THEY WILL HAVE WATER!

desal plant

Image courtesy of http://carlsbaddesal.com/

Making choices and you can’t ignore “the elephant in the room.”

In the California budget is their $68 billion dollar high speed rail project.  As everywhere, California must live on a budget and priorities must be reevaluated and set.  Water is clearly the most pressing short and long term issue for the State.  Spending on “real water projects” and getting real results logically should take precedent on secondary projects such as the high-speed rail.

Using math:  Using the $734 million number, and dividing the $68 billion rail budget number by it, you come up with funding for up to approximately NINETY THREE (93) possible desalination plants similar to the Carlsbad plant, which then could hypothetically supply water to over 10 million homes (10,376,022).  Using the Governor’s 38 million population number would mean approximately 27% of the entire state’s population could be served by 93 new desalination plants if built.  Again, if the budget number becomes one billion (likely), that still provides for 68 potential desalination plants to augment California’s water needs.

California has approximately 840 miles of coastline with access to the Pacific Ocean from which salt water could be pulled from.[ix]   The desalination plants don’t have to be built “right on the beach” as opponents try to claim, but can be built in areas that support the power requirements and water logistics to make them viable.  Building desalination plants would be great for jobs in the state as well.  Again, no single initiative is the full answer and undertaking such a plan warrants environmental study and brine management that results from desalination and weighed against not having water and the impact it would have on the State’s agricultural which produces two thirds of the nation’s produce[x].

And one more thing… whereas there are side effects of desalination[xi], such as the brine which is essentially salt, this can be managed and in fact, potentially needed in the future.  As the polar icecaps continue to melt, more and more fresh water is introduced into the ocean.  The delicate balance of salt in the water must be monitored and potentially “adjusted” in the future.  Also, the brine itself could be dehydrated and then moved to an area of storage/disposal /or possible reuse on land.  These are just two examples of how the brine byproduct could be used.  And as technology and other means of addressing the fresh water needs of the world become operational, the “mix” of technologies can be managed bringing newer, more efficient technologies online and retiring less efficient ones.  But, for now, doing nothing is simply not an option, and for now, desalination works.

We all must work together and explore all of the common sense sustainable solutions to address not only the California drought, but the worldwide water crisis in general. Please watch both videos in their entirety…then decide for yourself.

Other technologies that exist today.

Learn more about the Carlsbad Desalination Plant or read their fact sheets online.  In follow on editions of my “common sense sustainability” studies, other technologies, and practices will be discussed.  Addressing the worldwide water crisis will take include all aspects of the “Common Sense Sustainability” cycle.  One of our next studies will include the world’s largest advanced water purification system for potable reuse.  The Groundwater Replenishment System, a joint project of the Orange County Water District and the Orange County Sanitation District, can produce up to 100 million gallons (379,000 cubic meters) of high-quality water every day. This is enough water to meet the needs of nearly 850,000 residents in north and central Orange County, California.[xii]


[i] http://www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-ln-new-drought-same-governor-20150401-story.html

[ii] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkxI9dQAfQC8gpud5Iaiwwg CalChannel

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgj7efM2pyE the Press Conference on the Drought

[iv] http://www.bestclimatepractices.org/water-a-precondition-for-human-existence-un-world-water-development-report-launched/

[v] http://www.unwater.org/publications/publications-detail/en/c/396246/

[vi] http://www.sdcwa.org/734-million-carlsbad-desalination-project-financing-closes-0#sthash.wU0ZngQL.dpuf

[vii] http://www.sdcwa.org/largest-desalination-plant-western-hemisphere-completes-first-year-construction

[viii] http://www.sdcwa.org/seawater-desalination

[ix] http://www.netstate.com/states/geography/ca_geography.htm

[x] http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/05/3646965/california-drought-and-agriculture-explainer/

[xi] http://science1.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography/physical-ocean/salinity/

[xii] http://www.ocwd.com/gwrs/about-gwrs/


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