Desalination’s Future in California Is Clouded by Cost and Controversy

The Carlsbad plant uses extremely high pressure to push water from the ocean through tiny reverse-osmosis membranes that essentially strain out the salt.

The Carlsbad plant uses extremely high pressure to push water from the ocean through tiny reverse-osmosis membranes that essentially strain out the salt. (Adam Keigwin/Poseidon Water)


Once thought to be the wave of the future, desalination is proving to be a tough sell in California.

The idea of turning ocean water into drinking water has long held promise, but the dream of sticking a straw in the sea and getting unlimited clean water simply by opening the spigot of technology — that’s looking less and less likely here.

Scarcely a decade ago, when “desal” was relatively new to the state and optimism was high, there were 22 different proposals for plants up and down the California coast. Since then, Marin, Santa Cruz and other coastal cities have scrapped their plans. A tiny desal plant has been constructed in Sand City, north of Monterey, but only one significant project has been completed.

It’s in Carlsbad, 30 miles north of San Diego, and it’s the largest desal plant in the nation, built and operated by Boston-based Poseidon Water. Peter MacLaggan looks up at the giant building like it’s a monument to common sense.

“If you don’t plan for the future and ensure you have an adequate supply,” says MacLaggan, a senior vice president with Poseidon,  “you’re going to find yourself in a crisis that costs a lot more than if you plan ahead and do it right.”


He says one of the reasons the San Diego area managed to get a desal plant built is because of its location at the tail end of the state’s water pipe.

“When you look at San Diego and where it’s located in the water supply system in California, it’s at the end of a very long plumbing system, 500 miles from its nearest source,” MacLaggan says.

That intensified the need for another water supply, he says. This plant supplies about 10% of the San Diego area’s water needs.

The massive Carlsbad desalination plant is the biggest in the country, capable of supplying water to around 7 percent of the population of San Diego County--but has been cited several times for environmental violations.
The sprawling Carlsbad desalination plant is the nation’s largest. It’s been online for less than a year but has been cited several times for environmental violations. (Adam Keigwin/Poseidon Water)

Environmental Costs

MacLaggan and other proponents hold up Carlsbad as proof-positive that desal works. But just 60 miles up the coast from Carlsbad, you get a different view; another one of these gigantic plants is proposed for a white expanse of sand at Huntington Beach.

Ray Hiemstra says this spot is the poster child for why desal doesn’t work.

“It’s going to kill marine life, pollute your water, increase your rates and most importantly we don’t need it,” he says.

Hiemstra works for Orange County Coastkeeper, a South Coast environmental watchdog. He starts to run out of fingers as he enumerates all the other reasons to reject the plant proposed for Huntington Beach. There’s an active earthquake fault here.  It’s in a tsunami zone. And its elevation is so low that rising seas might inundate the proposed site.

One of the big problems with taking the salt out of seawater, says Hiemstra, is what to do with it after it’s removed;  that highly concentrated brine typically goes back into the ocean. At Huntington Beach, you can see the outflow pipe just a thousand feet offshore.

“It’s right there,” he says, squinting and pointing at the surf line. “There’s a couple of surfers out there, right by it.”

The proposed Huntington Beach desal plant would use the outflow pipe from the AES power plant (background) to deposit salt residue, known as brine, back into the ocean.
The proposed Huntington Beach desal plant would use the outflow pipe from the AES power plant (background) to deposit salt residue (known as brine) back into the ocean.

When you increase the level of salt in the water, he says, even diluted to low levels, it disrupts marine life all around that spot.

“Anything that comes through here and realizes that brine plume and higher salinity, even a little bit higher salinity, it’s just going to move away.”

That area of less sea life and the water at the outfall can drift south, he says, affecting the food supply of the California least tern, a threatened bird living nearby.

And there’s another problem with putting water from a desal plant back in the ocean:  it may have residue from the chemicals used to treat the water, such as chlorine.

The Carlsbad plant isn’t even a year old but state officials have cited it a dozen times for environmental violations. That includes what they call “chronic toxicity,” from an unknown chemical used in water treatment that has been piped into the ocean. The company is still trying to identify, isolate and clean it up.

Expensive Water

Despite their severity, environmental concerns aren’t the main barrier.

“In general, one of the big challenges has really been the cost,” says Heather Cooley, an analyst with the Pacific Institute in Oakland. The nonpartisan research group recently issued a lengthy report on the state of desalination in California.

Beyond the environmental cost is the actual price tag: the plant in Carlsbad cost $1 billion to build, with a rough estimate of $50 million a year for the power to run it. The estimated cost of the water to San Diego is about  $2,300 dollars an acre-foot — more than double the cost most Southern California cities pay for water.  (An acre-foot is enough water to supply one-to-two California households per year.) And ratepayers need to pony up for that water even during rainy seasons when the price of water from more traditional sources plummets.

Cooley says the expense is the main reason communities have turned away from desalination.

“As many of these projects sort of went through the process and started looking more seriously at the cost,” she says, “there started to be concern that that was too high, that there very likely were other options.”

Those options include treating wastewater and putting it back into the water table, catching stormwater runoff, or simple conservation efforts. That’s the future most agencies are pursuing in California.

Cooley says desal used to be high on the list of possible water sources, but now it’s closer to the last choice on the list.

“There are some people who still hold onto it as the Holy Grail,” she says, “that thing you’re seeking that’s going to solve our problem.”

Now, six years into the drought and counting, the demand for water sources is only liable to intensify. That could set the stage next year for yet another fight over approval for the Huntington Beach desal plant.

  • Scott

    Most biased, uninformed piece on desalination written in a long,long time. No wonder why journalism is dead.

    • lorax

      Which parts are you disputing: the cost? The citations for environmental damage? The problems with the proposed Huntington Beach location? The whole thing?

      • Patrician_1

        Most of the piece is very one sided, as no one really should expect a reverse osmosis process to do the whole job. Most intelligent people would agree that the RO should be augmented with evaporation to obtain higher yields. The brine would be able to yield major returns to those interested in recovery of minerals [gold, silver, mercury, etc.] The recovered minerals would offset the cost of the water production, and by using photovoltaics to produce the power needed for the operations, once the initial cost is paid, the plant runs at minimal costs.

        • lorax

          Thank you!

  • Joseph Rizzi

    http://www.SeaSpringNow.com is looking to change the process to not harm any sea life and cut the Desal. costs by 1/3. Check out our web site to see how.

  • Canyon

    The most costly water is the water you do not have. Given the pressure in California to impose a morality opposed to individual rights, with only one example of Brown’s pejorative comment about people having the landscape they prefer, San Diego county is a stellar example of accepting its situation and offering the people in the service area an choice on water. If a person wants to conserve, it is very simple: don’t turn on the tap. If you like to grow flowers, a lawn, vegetables, whatever, then you can buy water. Choice is good. Restriction of freedom to make choices is bad.

    • DFinMA

      Water is a natural resource to which everyone is entitled. One’s ability to afford to water their lawn to the detriment of everyone else is a bad idea. Simple solution is a per capita quota. Figure out how much water we have available to use, everyone gets X gallons per month, period. People who use less can release their remainder to the open market where it can be purchased at market rate with the proceeds going to the original person.

  • John Perez

    Water is something that is most important in this world. Everybody needs water to survive other wise we dry out like fruits and meats. What im saying is if we had water here in California everybody and everything would be hydrated. Our farmers need water to water their crops to sell to us to survive and be healthy. We got water we are not in a so called “drought”. All that needs to be done is give water to us from not only L.A. or other parts of the world using it no problem.

  • KY LA

    I think this project is very useful but there are a lot of problems are more important than turning seawater into drinking water. “It’s going to kill marine life, pollute your water, increase your rates and most importantly we don’t need it,”Ray Hiemstra said. And this project just supplies about 10% of the San Diego area’s water needs.

    • Patrician_1

      That project is woefully under needed capacity. This was no doubt due to a Republican cost cutting mindset. If people would think about time as more than the next week coming, the project would have been sized appropriately. If the brine is further concentrated, and then minerals removed, there is no danger to sea life. Properly run, there would be very little “brine” to deal with, after evaporation ponds took the effluent from the final evaporation process.

      Small minds see one thing only, the cost of the initial water recovered, and do not think about the amounts of minerals available for cost offset. Those same small minds forgot that powering the RO pumps can be almost free, once photovoltaics are put into place to power the processes.

      In California, where people keep coming into the state and very few leave, plus the greater demands on the dwindling water from the Colorado River, and the disputes over that water, I can think of no greater problem than that of global warming itself. [If desalinated seawater were to become plentiful, Death Valley could be made into a verdant area, with just enough desert left for those who wish to appreciate it. The Salton Sea could be raised, and the brackish water quality that supports the very life not explicitly adapted to it, could once again thrive, and new life come back into the area. If MORE water were to be made available in the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, more food to support the constantly growing population could be grown.

  • mike2000917

    Population is the problem. California has always had periodic mega droughts and climate change will only make it worse. Stop or slow development and stop being a magnet for immigration from the south.

  • Leroy Essek

    There is a new technology that can desal ocean water for free. Joi Scientific located at NASA’s KSC.

  • Fifty Ville

    If desalinization was bad for the environment, why does Israel use it heavily? They have bountiful farms, and they sell fresh water to their neighbors. California has already wasted over $44 billion on a railroad which nobody wants or needs, and not one foot of track has been laid yet. Half of that amount would build 40 desalinization plants up and down the coast.

    • Patrician_1

      No one I know has a problem with the trains, everyone I know likes the idea of being able to get from LA to SF in 5 hours or thereabouts, and, as far as I am aware, there has been little of the money proposed actually used. The above article has many distortions of the facts, and shows no intelligence as might be used by a high school student.

      Reverse Osmosis should be only a part of the solution. Evaporation should be a part of any process to augment the RO operations. The recovery of water would be high, and the brine is made available for recovery of many elements, which offset the cost of the water recovery.

      • Fifty Ville

        Then I suggest you expand your circle of acquaintances outside of that tight little circles of doctrinaire lefties.

        • Patrician_1

          Doctrinaire lefties, as you call them, are what moves the world forward, Henny Penny.

          • Fifty Ville

            That’s a very common delusion.

          • Patrician_1

            When more than half the world shares the same view, is it a delusion?

      • Travis Ferrara

        The train isn’t even going to go to Los Angeles. It’s going to Bakersfield. Don’t even get me started on how big of a waste that project is.

  • dzerres

    How much money is too much if there is NO WATER available from the Colorado? Have you looked at Hoover Dam outside of Las Vegas lately? Upstream states like mine, Colorado, have rights to much more of the water now heading into the Colorado then they are now tapping with many new proposals on the table now to “pull back” more water before it leaves the state (Google “the Big Straw”). Utah has the Central Utah Project and Arizona has the CAP. Where is San Diego going to get the water to flush their toilets so that it can produce “recycled water” out of thin air? As for the brine just pipe the stuff farther out to the edge of the Continental Shelf and suck in sea water along the journey, problem solved.

  • SynerGenetics

    No to desalinization we should be recycling water instead.

  • DFinMA

    I know it’s human nature to focus on the the supply side — be it water, energy, housing, etc. — but the real focus needs to be on the demand side. We have too many people consuming too many resources.

  • John doe

    lol “we can’t build these plants cause marine life” as an excuse? what they should of done is build way more of these instead of the bullet train

  • Christopher Joseph Welsh

    Salt is a valuable commodity. Instead of sending it back into the ocean where research and consensus has determined evidence of adverse environmental impacts, why not store it, clean it/filter it and process it for sale as the useful product that it is for various purposes. If people can love and pay top dollar for Dead Sea Salt products, surely “California Salt” can be an attractive offering to the global market. This can also be applicable to any other elements removed from the “brine”. Sales of salt and these other elements could off-set some of the building, maintaining and powering costs of these Desal plants. The energy costs may also be offset by on-site energy methods like solar, wind, geothermal, bio-mass, or any other of the newer innovations in energy capture and production we are seeing today. Evan tidal energy could also be captured by the water intake system. Combine this with high-efficiency electrical systems (LED lighting, Smart metering, Energy recapture (think regenerative braking), computer systems, mechanical systems, etc.) and optimized engineering to create the most efficient overall system possible.
    We are all well aware of the knowledge, intelligence, and innovation that the wonderful people of California are very much capable of. Remove the need for any one party to win over the other and learn to work together to take the best of what each and every party has to offer to create the best unified plan. We see great and varied evidence of this already, but we still have this multi-sided us vs. them mentality playing out with the people living in the area, farmers, environmental researchers, business interests, and government staff all seemingly competing for who has the best idea. I hope these groups can remove any desire to “win” over one another and work more effectively together to create the best solution to this variety of challenges. It is also important to understand the potential domino effect of the reduction or extinction of the Delta Smelt (or any other species, for that matter.) would have. It is not about any one species, but the chain reaction that could occur resulting from the negative impact or loss of that species, locally, regionally, nationally, or globally. Every species is important to maintain balance and harmony, humans included.
    If this seems overly simple, that is the point. We need not over complicate things. Hopefully this is helpful or even already in progress. Everyone concerned in this matter can work together to create a collective win. It is possible to create the desired outcome of enough water for the people in their homes and businesses, and for agriculture, and with minimal to no negative environmental impact. With cooperation, innovation, and efficiency, and the right “how can we make this work” mentality, these Desal plants can be a viable and ideal method to contribute to the solution of the water challenge in California.

  • grumpy

    The dumbest thing about this story as it fails to consider the carbon impact. That can be very large, or negligible. For instance if a new-design MSR reactor supplied the power, from a company like Terrestrial Energy or ThorCon Power, or Terrapower, then the carbon impact would be zero and the cost to run the plant would be low. That would also allow the plant to mostly use wind and solar, but rely on the MSR when wind and solar are not available.

    If the plant is run on frack-fossil gas, that is what is killing us, and killing the ocean. Complaining about a bit of brine is stupid while ignoring a huge carbon impact, which causes acidification and warming. Carbon is killing us. Carbon is causing the drought. You want to make that worse? Let’s try putting that front and center where it belongs.

    The 2nd dumbest thing about this story is leaving out water recycling. Yes, we need to do that before desalinating. We should not be dumping the clean usable water from our treatment plants into the ocean, without a fight!

    The other dumb thing about this story is it doesn’t compare the desal plan to Governor Brown’s “Twin Tunnels” project. Any Desal is way better economically and for the environment than the idea of spending $17 Billion pumping water from the Sacramento (which doesn’t have any to spare) to So. Cal.

    Nothing is perfect or evil. We need to make the best choices we can given the alternatives. This journalist fails at putting this solution in context.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor