Californians need water, but desalination projects are bogged down

Chugging a cool glass of California tap? It could be seawater flowing from that faucet.

Desalination — the process of making salty water drinkable — is now producing a growing share of the national water supply as officials scramble to hydrate booming populations with dwindling fresh supply.

“The availability of water is lessening and the cost is going up, to the point that desalination in California is becoming viable as an option,” said Paul Shoenberger, manager of the Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa.

More than 15,000 plants are churning out tens of billions of drinkable gallons daily in more than 100 countries.


But desalination has been lagging in California, where water woes are especially dire, industry and government officials say. They blame the slow progress on a disorganized local industry, litigious environmentalists and a thorny approvals process.

Connecticut-based developer Poseidon Resources has been trying to build a $650-million plant in Carlsbad, but the project has wallowed in red tape for more than a decade. It also has battled a dozen legal challenges.

The facility, which would sit beside the Encina Power Station, would churn out 50 million gallons of drinkable water a day — 10% of San Diego County’s needs.

The facility may start construction in March, executives said. But for now, as Poseidon tries to untangle the red tape, a small pilot project on the site is producing about 40,000 gallons of drinkable water.

“Water is the lifeblood of Southern California, but the industry here has not evolved along with the growth in technology,” said Scott Maloni, a vice president with Poseidon.

After decades in development, desalination plants can now remove 99.9% of the salt content in water. The process is mostly used for seawater but can also apply to river water and irrigation runoff. In the last 15 years, the cost of some components has dropped 30%.

Although still not cheap, the cost of desalinated water has been cut by more than half since 1998, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Some estimates peg the price of 1,000 gallons at roughly $3, compared with pennies for the same amount of fresh water.

Most countries, including the U.S., use reverse osmosis, which pushes the water at high pressure through a membrane that separates the salt from the liquid. Another method, thermal desalination, is popular in the Middle East and involves evaporating the water to leave the salt behind.


Singapore officials market their desalination efforts as NeWater. The French Riviera, Spain and Israel are peppered with desalting facilities.

Every major city in drought-stricken Australia — which had no desalination plants five years ago — is now either constructing or operating one. Officials there acted “out of crisis and desperation,” said water industry analyst Debra Coy, and now California “may not be too far behind.”

Seawater desalination plants are in planning stages in Dana Point, Long Beach, Camp Pendleton and Redondo Beach, but some have met with resistance, particularly from critics who say the cost is too high.

An analysis this week from the California Division of Ratepayer Advocates estimated that customers in Monterey could see their water bills quadruple if a proposed facility there is built.


Some say it would be worth the cost. The state’s natural water resources — such as the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains — are over-tapped, industry officials said. Los Angeles regularly leads the nation as the city running out of fresh water the fastest.

Desalination efforts in Southern California have been stymied by regulatory red tape and a disjointed industry. The cost and barriers to entry for desalination companies also remain very high. Such plants require hundreds of millions of dollars to build using complicated technology.

“It’s not a start-up-friendly market,” said Gibran Mursalin, a sales manager for Hydranautics, an Oceanside maker of desalination components.

And in California, permitting can be a slog. The process — sometimes called the 800-pound regulatory gorilla — involves state and regional water boards, air boards, environmental reviews and the state Coastal Commission.


Building a desalination plant on schedule in the state is a rarity. There’s even been talk among industry officials of piping in water from plants in Mexico to avoid the complications.

“It’s risky to go into desalination because the permitting is complicated, the planning structure is not there and the cost for a private company is significant,” said Finn Nielsen, chairman of water supplier Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies USA.

Desalination plants have also faced strong objections from environmentalists.

Though industry supporters say desalination isn’t as damaging to the environment as damming up rivers or transporting fresh water across the state, the process still requires two gallons of seawater to make one fresh gallon. The machinery spews concentrated brine into the ocean and occasionally sucks up marine life.


And the saltier the water, the more energy it takes to make the liquid drinkable, leading some opponents to deride the end product as “bottled electricity.” The cost of the power required to run the plants often constitutes more than half of the total operational cost.

The industry is investigating ways to maximize its energy efficiency, reaching out to start-ups for innovative ideas and experimenting with renewable energy to power facilities. In November the International Desalination Assn. met in Huntington Beach to discuss potential solutions.

Energy Recovery Inc. in San Leandro says its technology can reduce power use in desalination by 60%.

In the meantime, the industry is still waiting to take off, watching for any movement on the construction of the Poseidon plant in Carlsbad and a large Poseidon facility in Huntington Beach.


But few people are holding their breath. Some have started taking bets on when facilities in the state will break ground.

“Every year, we hear that construction will be next year, next year,” Mursalin said. “But then next year, it’s just another string of regulatory challenges. Who’s going to want to commit resources to that?”