SoCal Desalination Plant Inches Toward Approval

By Edward Ring
March 3, 2021

In a rare and commendable display of political courage and common sense, California Governor Gavin Newsom has been working to finally grant permits to construct a second major seawater desalination plant on the Southern California Coast.

But don’t count on this new water source just yet. Despite clearing major hurdles, self-described environmentalists and their allies in the media haven’t surrendered.

The Los Angeles Times is doing everything it can to derail the project. In a February 26 article, the Times reports that “environmentalists” have serious concerns about the proposed plant, set to be constructed in Huntington Beach and using a design similar to one already successfully operating about 60 miles south in Carlsbad. There’s just one thing: in a supposedly objective look at the Huntington Beach plant, the only sources quoted are self-declared environmentalists opposed to the plant.

Here are some of the problems those purported environmentalists have with the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Quoting from the LA Times article:

“Though the Huntington Beach facility meets the state goal of diversifying California’s water supply, it would undermine other environmental policies. The plant would require large amounts of electricity; it would sit next to a rising sea; and it would continue the use of huge ocean intakes harmful to microscopic marine life.”

These objections are easily answered.

First, the construction of anything in California, though approved by one agency, will be opposed by multiple others. This is the dystopian nature of California’s self-contradictory and destructive regulatory environment.

Second, every drop of water that is produced by the plant is water that does not have to be transported from reservoirs in Northern California, at an energy cost that rivals that of desalination.

Third, even the most aggressive projections of sea-level rise would not affect operations of the Huntington Beach plant, and even if some adaptations eventually were necessary they would be part of a larger project to protect the Southern California coast.

Fourth, as for “intakes harmful to microscopic marine life,” the design of these intakes prevents any significant wildlife impact. The intake filters are huge, which disperses the negative pressure over a very large surface area, and the pressure is periodically reversed, freeing the filter surfaces of microorganisms.

EVERYTHING’S A TRADE-OFF

Concerns about desalination along with the responses could occupy volumes, and have. But the notion that there is any sort of consensus among environmentalists that seawater desalination is a bad choice is false. Every option to supply the resources required to sustain urban civilization is fraught with tradeoffs. With Californians possibly facing yet another drought, desalination offers a way to take pressure off countless stressed upstream ecosystems.

Economic arguments offer a more credible case against desalination, but can fail to acknowledge the variability of the market price for water. In drought years, municipal water purchasers and farmers with perennial crops have paid well over the price for desalinated fresh water, which for San Diego’s Carlsbad plant comes in at around $2,000 per acre foot. To be sure, this price is well in excess of the wholesale price for water in wet years, which can drop well under $500 per acre foot. But for an urban area such as Los Angeles, situated on an arid desert located 500 miles or more from its sources of water, adding the expensive but certain option of desalinated water to a portfolio of water procurements is a prudent bet.

Water supply resiliency is not merely dependent on weather. Even if a Sierra snowpack reliably forms winter after winter for the next several decades, residents of the Los Angeles Basin still depend on three aging canals, precarious ribbons that each stretch for hundreds of miles. Earthquakes, terrorism, or other disasters could shut them down indefinitely. In an average year, Southern California water districts import 2.6 million acre feet of water. The 701-mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes a little more than half of that, at 1.4 million acre feet. The 242-mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another one million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the eastern Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419-mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

In a recent book “Winning the Water Wars,” author Steven Greenhut concludes the solution to California’s water challenges is to pursue an all-of-the-above strategy that embraces abundance, or as he puts it “feeding more water into the plumbing.”

“In addition to building more surface and groundwater storage facilities,” Greenhut writes, “California can deal with its water problems by building ocean desalination plants and increasing its commitment to wastewater reuse and other innovations.” If Greenhut, who talked with countless experts while researching his book, and who is a confirmed libertarian, can support the economics of public and private investment in desalination, anyone can.

A series of California Policy Center reports in 2018 expand on the concept of water abundance. Part two of the report, “How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion,” surveys existing investments in desalination and wastewater reuse and comes up with the following capital budget:

  • $7.5 billion to build the treatment plants to annually recover and perpetually reuse the one million acre feet of wastewater that currently is still treated and released into the Pacific Ocean.
  • Another $15 billion to build desalination plants with a combined capacity of another one million acre feet per year.
  • And $7.5 billion to upgrade and optimize the capacity to capture runoff, mitigate the capacious aquifers beneath the City of Los Angeles, and use them all for water storage.

This is the sort of water project that should be animating California’s politicians. There are 5.one million households in the three counties that would benefit from this scheme – Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside. A $30 billion capital improvement bond would cost each household $384 per year. If revenue bonds were to pass half the cost to ratepayers – a reasonable burden that would bring even desalinated water down to an affordable consumer price – the general obligation bonds would add new taxes of of just $192 to each household. Debt like this is referred to as “good debt,” unlike the $100 billion or so in debt that would be necessary to complete a nearly useless, obsolete before it’s even done, make-work project like the bullet train, or the bonds now being floated to fund government employment retirements.

Along with thinking big on the policy of water abundance, Gavin Newsom should take steps to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open. That would solve the energy challenge associated with desalination overnight. Diablo Canyon, situated on a mere 12 acres, produces 1.8 gigawatts of continuous, clean electric power. Based on the Carlsbad desalination plant’s performance, the energy input required to produce one million acre feet of desalinated seawater per year is only 560 megawatts – less than one-third of Diablo Canyon’s output.

THE SIERRA CLUB HATES PEOPLE

The biggest impediment to Californians achieving water abundance, along with energy abundance and abundant, affordable housing, are pressure groups that claim to speak for everyone who cares about the environment. For decades, these groups have tied in knots all infrastructure development and housing development in California. None are worse than the Sierra Club which, of course, bitterly opposes the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant.

A prime example of the Sierra Club’s damage to California: the group’s intense opposition to Prop. 3, the 2018 state water bond. Losing by less than one percent, Prop. 3 would have done amazing things for California. It was a hard-won compromise between many environmental groups, farmers, and urban water agencies. It would have allocated $9 billion in new funds, roughly half and half between water infrastructure projects including new runoff capture and storage, and environmental mitigation. Absolutely wondrous mitigation opportunities were lost when that bond failed, including reviving the Salton Sea and turning the Los Angeles River back into a river. Right now, the Los Angeles “river” is a cliche, a gigantic concrete channel, slick as a runway, known to American movie buffs as an obligatory leg on every car chase that takes place in downtown Los Angeles. Imagine this river if it were restored, with parks, trees, bike paths, trails and wildlife habitat, winding through the heart of a great city.

It wouldn’t have taken much for this bond to pass, but the Sierra Club objected to funds from the bond being allocated to repair the Friant-Kern canal. Their arguments were based mostly on a belief that the cost of those repairs should have been borne exclusively by South San Joaquin Valley farmers who use water from the canal.

The Sierra Club is well known for ruining otherwise viable compromises. For years, forestry experts have understood that the combination of fire suppression, reduced logging, and restrictions on controlled burns were leaving California’s forests dangerously overgrown. Dying trees and cataclysmic fires are the result of this neglect, and hence the conflagrations we’ve seen in recent years would have happened with or without climate change. But for decades, the Sierra Club has relentlessly opposed a return to sensible forest management. Don’t believe it? Ask Senator Dianne Feinstein.

“Sen. Feinstein blames Sierra Club for blocking wildfire bill,” reads the provocative headline on a 2002 story in California’s Napa Valley Register. Feinstein had brokered a congressional consensus on legislation to thin “overstocked” forests close to homes and communities, but could not overcome the environmental lobby’s disagreement over expediting the permit process to thin forests everywhere else.

“Sen. Dianne Feinstein blames environmental ally the Sierra Club for Congress’ failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests to reduce wildfire threats in the West,” the paper reported. Feinstein herself told the paper, ”The Sierra Club roasted me.”

The bargains required to rescue California depend on extremist groups like the Sierra Club either backing off or being exposed and discredited. Over five million acre feet more water per year can be achieved through a combination of desalination, total wastewater reuse, and increased storage including building the Sites Reservoir and raising the height of the Shasta Dam. Why would sincere environmentalists oppose having another five million acre feet of water that could be left in the rivers? Why would they object to the entire Southland becoming water independent? Why wouldn’t they be thrilled by the options this water abundance would enable, such as restoring wetlands and riparian habitats up and down the state? Is this about the environment, or about money and power?

Meanwhile, the “environmentalists” who have turned California into a state of expensive scarcity get plenty of help from the media. The Los Angeles Times attempt hit piece on the Huntington Beach plant came out on February 26, only days after the plant got crucial approvals. And what was the thrust of this article? Reminding readers that one of the guests at Newsom’s infamous “French Laundry” dinner was a lobbyist for Poseidon, the company trying to build the desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Guilt by association. The article goes on to quote anonymous “critics” who complain that “Newsom and his political appointees are exerting heavy influence to benefit a private company that would produce some of the state’s most expensive supplies.”

Piling it on, the author writes “In addition, Newsom took the unusual step of replacing a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board member who was highly critical of the project.” A fairer reporter might have observed that Gov. Newsom is doing something right.

If you can wade through the hackery of the Times article, there is of course this gem – the unintended but clear and grim assessment of how many hoops remain before there will be even one more desalination plant on the California Coast. There ought to be 20 operating by now. If and when the rain fails for more than a few years in a row, Californians will need to be reminded that the culprit was not climate change, but groups like the Sierra Club and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times that left us so thirsty.

Ed Ring is a cofounder of the California Policy Center, and a contributor to the California Globe where a version of this article first appeared.

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