The drought — with a grain of salt

A parched lake bed at Lake Oroville, about 60 miles north of Sacramento. (Photo: sddatta, via Shutterstock)

As drought-parched California withers, salt water captures attention – again.

Santa Barbara, which built a desalination plan more than 20 years ago and then abruptly shut it down because of costs, is considering upgrading and restarting the project and provide the city of 91,000 with about a fourth of its drinking water. The tentative price tag is $40 million. And Santa Barbara isn’t alone in considering desalination.

“We’ve had the four driest consecutive years ever recorded. We’ve never seen four consecutive years with this little rainfall,” said Kelley Dyer, the city’s water resources supervisor.

Monterey, meanwhile, is developing a $95 million desalination plant for seawater with a Dec. 31, 2016 target date.

In Sacramento, the State Water Resources Control Board is poised to adopt new regulations in May governing desalination.

A $1 billion desalination plant in Carlsbad, which ultimately will provide San Diego County with 7 percent of its drinking water, is scheduled to go into operation next year, boosting the average water bill by about $7 monthly. The desalted water will cost about $2,000 per acre-foot, roughly double the cost of water from the State Water Project.

Seawater isn’t the only target for getting the salt out: A $9 million plant in Cambria in San Luis Obispo, not far from Hearst’s Castle, is processing brackish groundwater providing about 250 acre-feet of fresh water a year, or more than 81 million gallons, about a third of the community’s needs.

Desalination plants in Orange County and Sand City north of Monterey also have desalination plants to turn brackish water – water that is salty, but less salty than sea water – into drinkable water. Other areas, including Santa Cruz and Marin, have rejected desalination plants.

Monterey, meanwhile, is developing a $95 million desalination plant for seawater with a Dec. 31, 2016 target date. The plant – part of a $277 million project that includes new pipelines and infrastructure — would cut consumption from the Salinas River by 70 percent and provide some 6,250 acre-feet annually of a “sustainable, drought-proof water supply” to the Monterey Peninsula and replenish groundwater supplies by about 3,500 acre-feet. Huntington Beach is developing a desalination plant for 2018 to provide 50 million gallons of fresh water per day.

The Santa Barbara desalination plant, which was closed down in 1992 after the drought ended, was viewed “as temporary and intended for drought emergencies,” Dyer said. But the intensity and duration of the current dry spell, plus advancements in technology and efficiency, prompted local officials to decide whether to upgrade and run the facility.

Of the money in the $7.55 billion borrowing approved by voters in November, about $137 million has been set aside for desalination and recycling projects.

Santa Barbara, which relies on local reservoirs and groundwater, plus some water purchased from the State Water Project, has about 25,000 water connections. With the desalination plant up and running, the monthly bill of the average customer would rise about $30, from $78 to about $108. The decision to go ahead with the project, which will provide some 3,125 acre-feet annually or about a fourth of the city’s supplies, will be made by the city council in June.

Of the money in the $7.55 billion borrowing approved by voters in November, about $137 million has been set aside for desalination and recycling projects. “We’re keeping a very close eye on that money,” Dyer noted.

So, thus far, desalination efforts are a drop in the bucket — literally.

California, with about 38 million people, manages some 41 million acre feet of water a year, which is only about a fifth of the total amount of water – about 200 million acre-feet – that falls on the state in the form of rain or snow in an average year and isn’t captured or diverted.

About two-thirds of the water “is lost through evaporation and transpiration by trees and other plants,” notes the Association of California Water Agencies, while the rest remains in the state’s system. About a third of that water, however, flows to the ocean or to salt sinks.

About three-fourths of California’s water falls on the state north of Sacramento. The heaviest demand for water is in the south, however, and north-south tensions over water have bedeviled the state for generations.

But this isn’t an average year.

California’s fourth consecutive dry year has resulted fallowed crop lands, water reductions across the state for farms, homes and businesses; mandatory cuts ordered by the governor and new monitoring of farm water use and groundwater enforcement. Reservoirs, led by San Luis, Folsom, Shasta and Oroville, are dwindling.

The plants are costly, the process consumes large amounts of energy and the environmental concerns are extensive.

But with the Pacific Ocean, the mother of all water sources, pounding against 1,100 miles of California coastline, it’s not surprising that desalination is getting renewed scrutiny.

“I’m fully supportive of it (desalination), especially in coastal cities, said Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian, a Republican, 40-year resident of San Luis Obispo County and a former county supervisor. “Cambria has no other choice. It was a necessity,” he said. The locals already had dramatically lowered water consumption by 44 percent, he added, “but there was still not enough water for emergencies,” such as wildfires.

Desalination has been around for more than five decades globally, half of it in the Middle East, and around the world some 9.8 billion gallons of water is desalinated daily, according to desalination advocates.

But desalination faces big hurdles. The plants are costly, the process consumes large amounts of energy, the environmental concerns are extensive and the burdens of a plant, fiscally and operationally, may continue long after the drought is over.

“There are alternatives that have a less damaging environmental impact, or no damaging environmental impact,” said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of the Sierra Club in California, “such as storm water capturing, increasing recycling, implementation of low-water rules, advanced irrigation.”

These measures, she added, “would be more cost-effective than building a string of desalination plants up and down the coast.”

Assemblymember Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, agrees.

“One option is to pursue cheaper, recycled water. Every time there is a crisis, people go to the sexiest, most difficult (option) to build the most expensive solution first. Cheaper, faster, environmentally benign solutions should be tried first, and then ‘desal’ should only be used as a fallback. And it (a desalination plant) takes so long to build in most cases,” he said.

“The cost of (desalinated) water will be so prohibitive down the road that you won’t want it,” Williams said.

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