Earlier this month, the California Department of Water Resources announced a new round of funding for desalination projects in the state. Six million dollar grants will be made available for new projects that help expand the Golden State’s fresh water supply. The move comes on the heels of a new water initiative Governor Gavin Newsom has launched to address California’s historic drought.
Desalination is the process of removing salts and other minerals from ocean or brackish water, thereby making water safe to be consumed or used for agriculture or other needs. A 2019 study estimated there are just under 16,000 desalination plants in operation worldwide, spread across 177 countries. It’s a rapidly growing industry, with reverse osmosis technology in particular behind much of the capacity growth in recent years (see figure).
About half of desalinized water that is produced is in the Middle East today. However, California, with its long coastlines and access to the Pacific Ocean, is also a player in the industry, with 12 such plants in operation currently. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant is the largest in the United States. Operated by Poseidon Water and owned by the UK firm Aberdeen Standard, it produces 50 million gallons of water daily for the San Diego County area.
More facilities may come online now that the state is offering the $6 million incentive packages. The Newsom Administration is supportive—desalination is a pillar of its new water supply initiative—which isn’t surprising given the state’s once-in-a-millennium drought. The question now is whether the administration will stand up to some of the interest groups that have historically thwarted progress.
A $1.4 billion Huntington Beach desalination plant was blocked by the California Coastal Commission in May. That project was first proposed more than two decades ago, according to the LA Times, and environmental groups have been fighting the project the whole way. Green groups worry about cost, energy use, and, most importantly, pollution associated with these facilities.
As far as cost is concerned, a 2019 Yale report found “In the last three decades, the cost of desalination has dropped by more than half.” The primary environmental issue is with the “brine”—waste produced as a byproduct of the desalination process. This water contains elevated salt content, and it often gets pumped back into the ocean, where it can harm sea life.
Technological advancements are allowing wastewater to be used for a variety of different purposes, ranging from producing ordinary table salt, to making chemicals used in plant operations or producing hydrogen. Some smaller desalination operations are relying on solar energy to power themselves, thereby eliminating carbon dioxide emission concerns. For the moment, solar-powered operations tend to be small and in more of an experimental phase. Nevertheless, this could represent the future of the industry.
Currently, there are a handful of desalination plants under consideration by California regulators, for example in the Monterey County area and another in Orange County. To move forward, they will need approval from the Coastal Commission. A final determination on some could come as early as this fall.
Although Newsom warned the commission it would be a “big mistake” to vote down the Huntington Beach project, he could perhaps have applied more pressure on regulators to move the project forward. Ultimately, if California is going to address its water crisis, desalination is going to have to remain an option. True, new technologies bring new challenges, but challenges can’t be overcome if all the state does is sideline projects.
The legendary environmental scholar Julian Simon, in his book “The Ultimate Resource,” famously explained how human ingenuity and behavior adjust in conditions of scarcity. Spurred by higher prices, people find a way to produce and to innovate. As Governor of California, Newsome can either stand for technological change and progress or stand against it. As one of the most important politicians in America, he wields a powerful stick. He shouldn’t be afraid to use it.