As the drought in California reaches desperate proportions, San Diego County has undertaken to build the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere, one which will transform 50 million gallons of seawater into drinking water each day. While the $1 billion Carlsbad Desalination Project will help secure safe drinking water for 300,000 people in southern California, opponents have cited concerns that the plant will be hugely energy hungry, harm marine life, boost water bills and may not actually be needed.
The desalination plant, which is being built by Poseidon Water, is set to open in November and will prove a major test of the technology. Smaller desalination plants exist in the US—mostly in areas of California and Texas—but it has often been considered too expensive a technology for use on a large-scale basis. Speaking to the New York Times, Mark Weston, chairman of the agency that supplies water to towns in San Diego County, explained, “It was not an easy decision to build this plant… But it is turning out to be a spectacular choice. What we thought was on the expensive side 10 years ago is now affordable.”
It’s a difficult decision for a multitude of reasons; not only will it increase water bills, but there are significant concerns as to the environmental impact the facility will have. The Carlsbad desalination project will require a massive amount of energy to pump water from the ocean to bays where it is filtered and the salt extracted through reverse osmosis. That energy usage will, in turn, increase carbon emissions associated with global warming and in doing so conceivably further California’s water woes.
Furthermore, the pricey project may ultimately prove unnecessary. The current drought in California is on a path to become the most severe in the state’s history but if the rain does return, then San Diego will be saddled with a very expensive and largely useless facility. Twenty-five years ago, a desalination plant was constructed in Santa Barbara, and promptly shut down after changes in the weather rendered it unnecessary—only now are officials looking into reopening that plant.
With Governor Jerry Brown’s recent announcement of water restrictions throughout California, there’s certain to be immense interest as to whether or not this large scale desalination project can help residents of the parched state. But even then, there are still considerable arguments for other measures to be looked at more closely. Speaking to NBC, Livia Borak with the Coast Law Group in Encinitas, CA, described desalination as a “last resort,” explaining: “This is especially true for the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which not only negatively impacts marine life but also fails to mitigate the majority of its greenhouse gas emissions. When 60 percent of residential water use is spent on outdoor landscaping, we should be looking to conservation first.”