Desperate from Drought, California Turns to Desalination

A worker among some of the 2,000 pressure vessels used to convert seawater into fresh water through reverse osmosis in the western hemisphere's largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, on March 11, 2015.

A worker among some of the 2,000 pressure vessels used to convert seawater into fresh water through reverse osmosis in the western hemisphere's largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, California, on March 11, 2015.

Photographer: Gregory Bull/AP Photo

As California battled its last severe drought in the early 1990s, Santa Barbara spent $34 million on a desalination plant that proved too costly to keep running when rain returned. Now, the city can’t afford to keep it idle.

“Show me how we conserve our way out of this if these conditions continue,” said Joshua Haggmark, water resources manager for the city, located 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles, during a tour of the facility he’s working to reboot by the end of next year. “If a business doesn’t have the water it needs to do whatever it needs to do, they’re going to find it somewhere else and they’ll leave.”

The paradox of California’s drought, entering its fourth year with no end in sight and prompting unprecedented calls for conservation, is that the parched land mass sits astride the world’s largest ocean. While purification of non-potable water has long propelled other arid parts of the globe, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, California has historically favored cheaper and less energy-intensive options such as redirecting water from the north and storing it in reservoirs.

As concern mounts that historically low precipitation plaguing the state may represent a new normal, desalination projects are gaining resonance as drought-proof hydration solutions. At least 14 coastal areas are weighing plans in addition to Santa Barbara and San Diego, the farthest along. County supervisors in Santa Clara County, the most-populous in the San Francisco Bay Area, have renewed discussion on the technology. Poseidon Water, the company behind San Diego’s plant, is touting it as cost-effective and reliable.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse-osmosis desalination, the most popular method, pushes seawater through filtration membranes to remove salt and other impurities. It can require almost double the energy used to pump water 500 miles from the Sacramento Delta to San Diego, California’s most power-intensive water delivery network today, according to the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based conservation group.

Santa Barbara first turned to desalination during the six-year drought that began in 1986. It soon became a case study in the costly perils of betting on the unpredictable. In 1991, crucial reservoirs were replenished when record rain fell in a month that became known as “Miracle March.”

The city sold its reverse-osmosis membranes and pumps to Kindasa Water Services in Saudi Arabia, and placed the facility into long-term standby mode. Behind a locked gate, tanks, pipes and computers so old they use floppy disks have been gathering rust, dust and cobwebs ever since.

Revamping Facility

In June, Santa Barbara’s city council is expected to award a contract to revamp and operate the site to either IDE Technologies of Israel or Acciona Agua of Spain. The city is seeking a state loan to pay the initial $40 million price.

The facility would produce as much as 30 percent of the city’s water demand by 2017 and boost the average household’s monthly water bill by about $20. It’ll be among the most costly water sources, but will make the city more self reliant, Haggmark says.

“I’m banking on the fact that the climate is changing and we’re going to see more dryspells and we’ll need more redundancy,” Haggmark said. “It is more a supply of last resort and a method of making sure we never run out of water.”

Throughout California, the system for water provision involves a vast, complex network of aquifers, storage banks, pipes and aqueducts that have transformed desert land into thriving cities and farms. On April 1, Governor Jerry Brown imposed a mandatory 25 percent reduction in residential use after the state’s snow pack, which supplies about a third of water needs, registered just 5 percent of normal water content.

100 Countries

More than 14,000 desalination plants operate in more than 100 countries, according to Global Water Intelligence, a trade publisher. Some use seawater, others brackish, river and waste water. The reverse-osmosis membrane was invented in 1959 at the University of California Los Angeles.

Only a handful of seawater desalination plants exist along the California coast, according to the Pacific Institute. Most are small and used for industrial purposes; some municipalities have rejected proposals after finding them too costly. If all 14 proposed facilities were built and run at maximum capacity, in addition to those in Santa Barbara and San Diego, they would meet about 5 percent of the state’s urban water demand.

“Desal is the most expensive way to produce water, but we’re getting to a point now where it’s the only way you can get new,” said Tom Pankratz, editor of the Water Desalination Report. “We’re going to come to rely on desal more in the future because our traditional sources are running out.”

Fossil Fuels

Environmental concerns include the technology’s dependency on fossil fuels and the potential harm to marine life caused by intake pipes and the discharge of saltier brine into the ocean. Opponents advocate for more conservation and recycling instead.

“We don’t agree that we’re at the last resort,” said Kira Redmond, executive director at the non-profit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

In San Diego County, a $1 billion desalination facility in Carlsbad, conceived in the 1970s, is on track to provide as much as 7 percent of drinking water for the region of 3 million people beginning in November. A similar-sized project dating back to 1998 is in the works for Huntington Beach in Orange County.

“Since we introduced both Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, we’ve been through three drought cycles,” said Scott Maloni, vice president of Boston-based Poseidon Water. “It’s not a knee-jerk drought response.”