Post-Poseidon: to desalinate or not to desalinate, that is NOT the main question
The future of good water management depends on understanding the complexities of climate change, not simplistic 'solutions'
By Joe Geever
The California Coastal Commission sunk Poseidon Water’s proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination project on May 12 by an 11-0 vote.
Then, what role should ocean desalination play in California’s future?
Executive Director Jack Ainsworth told commissioners that the staff’s recommended project denial didn’t preclude building other coastal desalination plants.
“First of all,” he said, alluding to climate change, “I think we all agree and recognize that the ongoing historical drought is a crisis in California and that desalinization facilities will be part of California’s future water portfolio.”
Some of my environmentalist friends say that ocean desalination should never be part of California’s water portfolio.
Others support the proposed Doheny ocean desalination plant and the existing plant serving the City of Santa Barbara, both small projects, as alternatives to Poseidon’s proposal, a would-be $1.4 billion boondoggle and environmental catastrophe.
But Poseidon VP Scott Maloni calls the Pacific Ocean the “largest reservoir in the world” and sees ocean desalination as an important future water source for adapting to climate change—along with dams, canals, tunnels, and other “tools in the toolbox.”
“We have to keep providing the quality of life that we’ve all come to enjoy here. And we need to build [to do that],” Maloni told the EPOC Times last September.
The 20th Century, and the growth of the Industrial Age, is an amazing feat of human creativity. We’ve developed a world of safety and comfort that would have been unimaginable prior to the technological wizardry. But it’s clearly not that simple. Climate change forces us to re-think the costs and benefits of the technological age.
The Poseidon proposal and its rejection by the Coastal Commission showed that for every complex problem there’s always a simplistic solution that is wrong.
But both proponents and opponents of ocean desalination tend to offer overly-simplistic solutions for adapting to climate change.
The problems of providing water and energy in the future are complex. We need to define those problems accurately in order to find the right solutions.
Water and Climate Change
Despite desal proponents’ claims, climate change isn't just about more intense "drought.” Historical precipitation records clearly show that Californians have always lived with spatial and temporal challenges.
Spatially, California gets more precipitation in the north but we've developed more demand in the south.
The temporal challenge is that on a ten-year average we have always had less than "average" precipitation in seven or eight years and far more than "average" in two or three years.
So we developed massive infrastructure to capture and store water from the north in the "wet" years and move it from north to south for agriculture and massive population centers.
But historical records also show that climate change doesn’t change the basic precipitation pattern, it exacerbates it; that is, "dry" periods will be even drier and "wet" periods even wetter (but more in the form of rain than snow). But on a 10-year average, precipitation will be in about the same volumes.
So we need to re-think how and when we move water, and how we store it, in order to get a reasonable idea of the volume of water we could use annually based on a ten-year average in the future.
But some adaptations are clearly needed now:
Quit spending limited resources on more dams and reservoirs. Surface storage leads to evaporation loss, which will only get worse with climate change.
IMMEDIATELY stop over-drafting our groundwater basins. Overuse of groundwater has caused severe ground-level subsidence and storage loss. Groundwater storage may be the most valuable tool in the climate adaptation tool box for future generations.
Increase water efficiency/conservation;
Build more wastewater recycling plants;
Adapt stormwater management;
Implement in-stream flow programs
To build public support, we have to better educate the public about the real challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation—including both sides of the predicted precipitation pattern.
Talking about dry periods as if they’re unpredictable disasters is inaccurate and dangerous, particularly when the response is even more energy-intensive and makes the long-term problem worse (e.g., the Poseidon project).
It’s Not Just About Seawater
Mr. Maloni may be right that the ocean is a massive “water reservoir.” But he also seems to think we MUST maintain the creature comforts our generation enjoys.
The “reservoir” may be massive, but the fish that live in it are clearly a vital but limited and dwindling source of food for people.
So, the problem isn’t just about maintaining “comfort.” We don't even have a plan for basic housing and nutritional needs in the future.
Because I grew up a commercial fisherman, I can tell you we are already living on the remnants of the bounty the ocean once provided—even just in my lifetime.
We're putting together better fishery management plans, creating marine reserves, trying to improve water quality, and have eliminated the once-through cooled power plants that sucked in and killed marine life—like the one Poseidon wanted to use. But that hasn't restored the natural abundance yet.
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Our Energy Future
And concurrently, with Poseidon’s ironic argument for an energy-intensive new source of water for climate adaptation, environmentalists call for an end of using fossil fuels by transitioning to electricity through renewable energy sources.
Both statements seem overly-simplistic for a complex problem.
If we immediately quit using fossil fuel, how do we manufacture the equipment needed to generate renewable electricity for such a massive new load on the system—with or without desalination?
Can we manufacture solar and wind generators with the electricity that solar and wind generators are providing?
And if we need fossil fuel for manufacturing renewable generators like solar and wind, how accessible (i.e. affordable) will it be?
More important, as suggested by Maloni’s imperative to maintain our current level of creature comfort, are we really just adding more (renewable) energy sources in order to continue our gluttonous consumption?
And as for Maloni’s call to maintain our quality of life, there are four basic things society needs if we’re to stay on our current path: concrete, steel, fertilizers, and plastic—and all of them require fossil fuels.
I don't see a future where humans get to enjoy all the creature comforts we enjoy today—we’ve pampered ourselves to the point that we're stealing comfort from the future.
We probably shouldn’t have built massive automobiles, and driven around by ourselves with the windows down and the air conditioning on full blast. It felt pretty good at the time—but climate change now requires human beings to change their behaviors, either by self-control or fire and rain.
And like I hinted above, growing almonds and pistachios with limited and variable water supplies will not help feed run-away population growth nor bring environmental and economic justice.
We need to move on from our 20th Century reliance of technology to solve all our woes, but so far we’ve been unable to do so.
Do we need seawater desalination? I don't know. But the question is preventing a conversation about the ultimate problem: climate change is a game changer—in every way.
I think of all the effort my grandparents and parents gave to provide me and my siblings with a more comfortable life than they had, only to have it result in an existential threat like climate change. And it’s depressing to recount my personal oversized contribution to that problem.
But I try to stay humble and hopeful. Nature is amazingly resilient, given a chance. We can find solutions. But not until we honestly and accurately describe the complexity of the problems.