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Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90% of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100B+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. [1] Most of that water either evaporates, percolates, or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. [2] Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers. [3]

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25% reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4% of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25% reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. [4] That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. [5] Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart. [6]

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. [7] Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100% of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion. [8]

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100% of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100% of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90% of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)
http://sei-us.org/Publications_PDF/SEI-WesternWater-CWSD-0211.pdf

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”
http://www.water.ca.gov/urbanwatermanagement/2010_Urban_Water_Management_Plan_Data.cfm

(4) Cost of modern reverse osmosis desalination plant:
Technology Review
Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel.
http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/534996/megascale-desalination/

(5) Energy required to desalinate seawater using reverse osmosis technology:
Encyclopedia of Desalination and Water Resources
“Energy Requirements of Desalination Process”
Table 1. Energy requirements of four industrial desalination processes.
http://www.desware.net/desa4.aspx

(6) part one – Tehachapi lift of 1,926 feet:
Wikipedia, California Aqueduct
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Aqueduct

(6) part two – energy required to lift water:
University of California, Energy Required to Lift Water
Table 1. The Amount of Energy in Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) Required to Lift One Acre-foot of Water (325,851 gallons) One Foot of Elevation
http://cetulare.ucanr.edu/files/82040.pdf

(7) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005, ref. “South Coast”
http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_211EHChapter2R.pdf

(8) The cost to construct a modern natural gas power plant:
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Capital Costs for Electricity Plants
Download Table 1, “Updated Estimates of Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs” (ref. Natural Gas – the most modern and expensive version)
http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/capitalcost/

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Raise the Minimum Wage, or Lower the Cost of Living?

Increases to the minimum wage in California are moving closer to reality. As reported on March 30th by MyNewsLA.com, “Los Angeles County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis will ask their colleagues to approve spending up to $95,000 to have the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation review a series of studies of the issue performed in relation to the city of Los Angeles’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017 and to $15.25 an hour by 2019.”

California’s minimum wage is currently $9.00 per hour. The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour.

Largely lost in the debate over the “fight for fifteen” (dollars per hour) is America’s inflation adjusted minimum wage based on historical precedents. It’s an interesting topic that deserves discussion, because historical minimum wages expressed in 2015 dollars vary a great deal. Since establishing the first federal minimum wage in 1938, the amount has been adjusted 22 times. As can be seen on the chart, between 1938 and 1968 the minimum wage expressed in 2015 dollars rose steadily. In 2015 dollars, for example, the 1938 minimum wage would be $4.13, rising to $11.01 per hour by 1968. Since then, it has been in decline – in 2015 dollars the minimum wage was roughly between $9.00 and $10.00 per hour during the 1970’s, then fell to roughly between $7.00 and $8.00 from 1980 through 2009, when it was last adjusted.

Historical Minimum Wages
Expressed in 2015 Dollars
20150331-UW_Ring-MinimumWage

Those who believe in minimum wage laws can draw many conclusions from this data. What they cannot easily conclude, however, is that the minimum wage, today, can rise much beyond $10.00 per hour and still conform to historical norms. Only twice, in 1968 and 1974, did the inflation adjusted minimum wage exceed $10.00 per hour.

From this perspective, California’s state minimum wage, $9.00 per hour, finds itself placed almost exactly at the median in terms of historical federal minimum wage levels expressed in 2015 dollars. From what should be a reasonably compelling economic standpoint, there is no urgent reason to increase the minimum wage above $9.00 per hour, even for those who are solidly in favor of having minimum wage laws. While one may argue that California has a higher cost of living than most other places in the United States, justifying a minimum wage higher than the historical median, one might also acknowledge that many of the benefits offered minimum wage earners today were not available until relatively recently. Examples include the earned income tax credit, not established until 1975, and the steep discount on health premiums offered under Obamacare.

It rises perhaps to the level of overkill to join the libertarian chorus extolling the virtues of an utterly unregulated wage market. Also well documented are the many ulterior motives for labor unions to lead the charge for a higher minimum wage – it gives them powerful political rhetoric to address millions of low income workers not represented by a union, and, more pragmatically, a higher minimum wage rewards union members directly whenever – as is frequently the case – their wage scales are pegged a fixed level above the prevailing minimum wage.

Two observations potentially underrepresented in this debate, however, do deserve mention. First, the fact that unions are attempting to fight for workers in low paying, competitive industries, is at least consistent with the illustrious aspects of their legacy. Unlike unions representing government professionals who perform high paying jobs for monopolistic, taxpayer funded agencies, at least the unions fighting for minimum wage workers are fighting for the little guy. If they might abandon their commitment to flood the United States with unskilled immigrants who drive down wages and threaten the solvency of social welfare programs, and if their labor agreements didn’t peg their own wage scales to float upwards as the minimum wage rises, one could almost believe in their sincerity.

The other fact is more challenging and obscure, yet ought to merit a central place in the debate over economic justice. That is the fact that California’s cost-of-living is the highest in the nation. In California’s coastal cities, the cost of housing is prohibitive; the costs for energy, water, and transportation are punishingly high. For middle class residents, the cost of health insurance is punishing as well. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Competitive resource development – free of extremist environmental hindrances, other regulatory roadblocks, costly project labor agreements and union work rules – would lower the cost of living at the same time as creating millions of new jobs. It could usher in a new golden age for California’s working class.

Those unions who fight for a higher minimum wage might consider fighting to lower the cost-of-living instead. But to do so, they will have to break ranks with the public sector unions, who hide behind oppressive environmentalist restrictions, because they know full well that infrastructure development will come at the cost of their own exorbitant compensation.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.