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Desalination on the Sea of Cortez

Proponents of desalination tout its potential to quench the thirst of a water-deprived civilization. The logic is compelling. If fresh water is in short supply, why not remove the salt from the vast oceans? With an estimated volume of 1.1 million billion acre feet (an acre foot is the amount of water volume that would cover one acre, one foot deep) of seawater, there will always be enough ocean.

For all its potential, desalination has yet to be a game changer. Worldwide freshwater consumption is estimated at 7.5 billion acre feet per year. Of that total, roughly 20,000 desalination plants worldwide produce an estimated 30 million acre feet of fresh water per year. That’s an awful lot of water, but it’s less than 1 percent of global water consumption.

Nonetheless, desalination plays an outsized role in arid coastal regions around the world. In Israel, for example, five massive desalination plants on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea produce nearly a half-million acre feet of fresh water per year, an amount the nation plans to double by 2030. Israel’s Sorek Desalination Plant, located a few miles south of Tel Aviv, produces 185,000 acre feet of fresh water per year, from a highly automated operation that occupies only about 25 acres. Approximately 80 percent of Israel’s municipal water comes from desalination, and this nation of 9 million people […] Read More

How Much Fossil Fuel is Left?

Fossil fuel powers the economic engine of civilization. With a minor disruption in the supply of fossil fuel, crops wither and supply chains crash. With a major disruption, a humanitarian apocalypse engulfs the world. Events of the past few months have made this clear. Without energy, civilization dies, and in 2020 fossil fuel continued to provide over 80 percent of all energy consumed worldwide.

This basic fact, that maintaining a reliable supply of affordable fossil fuel is a nonnegotiable precondition for the survival of civilization, currently eludes far too many American politicians, including the president. Quoting from energy expert and two-time candidate for Governor of California Michael Shellenberger, “One month ago, the Biden administration killed a one million acre oil and gas lease sale in Alaska, and seven days ago killed new on-shore oil and gas leases in the continental U.S. In fact, at this very moment, the Biden administration is considering a total ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling.”

Another basic fact, easily confirmed by consulting the 2021 edition of the BP Statistical Review of Global Energy, is that if every person living on planet earth were to consume half as much energy per year as the average American currently consumes, global energy production would have to nearly double. Instead of producing 547 exajoules (the mega unit of energy currently favored by economists) per year, energy producers worldwide would have to come up with just over 1,000 exajoules. How exactly will “renewables,” […] Read More

California Coastal Commission Rejects Desalination

If the climate catastrophists are to be believed, “water wars” are just around the corner, and severe drought is already driving millions of “climate refugees” out of their arid homelands. To cope with expanding populations and diminishing rainfall, nations around the world are adopting desalination technology. From Singapore to Tel Aviv, desalination plants have replaced water scarcity with water abundance. But in California, in the middle of one of the most severe droughts in modern history, desalination at any meaningful scale is not an option.

On May 12, the California Coastal Commission board of directors voted 11–0 to deny the application from Poseidon Water to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Since 1998, Poseidon has spent over $100 million on design and permit work for this plant. At least half of that money was spent on seemingly endless studies and redesigns as the Coastal Commission and other agencies continued to change the requirements. The denial of Poseidon’s application makes it very unlikely another construction contractor will ever attempt to build a large-scale desalination plant on the California coast.

This is a historic mistake. If you’re trying to eliminate water scarcity, desalination is an option you can’t ignore. Desalination has the unique virtue of relying on a literally inexhaustible feedstock, the world’s vast and salty oceans. At an estimated total volume of 1.1 quadrillion acre feet (1.1 billion million acre feet), there will always be enough ocean.

A balanced appraisal of desalination […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 15) – Our Fight for More Water

There are plenty of ways to ration water, and California’s state legislature is pursuing all of them. Restrict agricultural water allocations until millions of acres of California’s irrigated farmland is taken out of production. Ban outdoor watering entirely in urban areas. Monitor residential indoor water use and lower it to 40 gallons per day per resident, with heavy fines to urban water agencies that cannot enforce those restrictions. But this is a lose-lose proposition, wreaking economic havoc and diminishing the quality of life for all Californians.

The initiative we came up with and attempted to qualify for the November 2022 ballot acknowledged the importance of conservation, but focused on supply. Passage of this initiative would have eliminated water scarcity in California. Looking to the next two year election cycle, the latest possible filing date for a new attempt to place an initiative on the November 2024 ballot is September 2023. A smarter approach would be to file an initiative around March 2023 in order to be gathering signatures from late spring through early fall in 2023. That would avoid competition with other political campaigns that promise to overwhelm 2024, and it would allow signature gatherers to approach voters who are likely to be enduring a second consecutive summer with the most severe restrictions on water use they have ever experienced.

The sad reality however is these plans are worthless without either access to millions of dollars in donations, or a volunteer movement with unprecedented scale and unity. But building a […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 14) – Infinite Abundance

From the inaugural Stanford Digital Economy Lab gathering in April 2022, noted venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson posted the following quote to Facebook: “Our goal is to usher in an era of infinite abundance.”

“Infinite abundance.”

This phrase epitomizes the ongoing promise of California’s tech culture. Despite every political shortcoming California may suffer, its technology sector continues to set the pace for the rest of the world. “Infinite abundance,” evocative of an earlier tech mantra “better, faster, cheaper,” is not only a defining aspiration of tech entrepreneurs, it is closer to being realized every day.

So why is it that Californians can’t generate abundant electric power? Why is it that Californians can’t figure out how to deliver abundant water? And how does a future of rationed, scarce energy and water square with the dreams of infinite abundance that inspire every one of California’s high tech entrepreneurs and investors? And insofar as the political clout of California’s high tech sector gives it almost infinite influence, when will its high-tech innovators confront this paradox?

For almost every significant resource of consequence to normal working families – energy, water, transportation, housing, and food – ordinary Californians have been betrayed by their elected officials. Everything is running out. Everything costs too much. But when Californians realize that the punitive cost-of-living they’ve endured was the result of poor political choices, and not an inevitable “new normal” they will need to be presented with alternative policies.

Somewhere between the grenade throwing pundit who persuasively condemns […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 13) – The Lords of Scarcity

One of the farmers who supported our attempt to qualify the Water Infrastructure Funding Act for the November 2022 ballot was John Duarte. It was a privilege to speak with Duarte, because his reputation had preceded him. Duarte is the man who had the temerity – and uncommon courage – to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when they ordered him to stop farming one of his properties. The Corps argued that the rain puddles that formed on Duarte’s 450 acres in Tehama County were vernal pools.

The case was eventually settled in 2017, but only after the government counter-sued and a federal district court rejected Duarte’s claims. Facing the infinite resources of the federal bureaucracy, Duarte decided against filing an appeal and paid the fines. During our first conversation, and subsequently, it was Duarte who coined the phrase the Lords of Scarcity. It is a vividly accurate way to describe the many special interests, public and private, that benefit from regulations and rationing.

This economic fact remains underappreciated: When regulations are imposed on businesses and public agencies that make it almost impossible for them to build something, whatever that something produces becomes more expensive. This fact rests on the law of supply and demand, and only requires a minor intuitive leap from that foundation: When demand exceeds supply, because supplies have been restricted, whoever owns existing supplies makes more profit. These owners are the Lords of Scarcity, and California is their citadel.

One of the profound […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 12) – Fighting Scope Insensitivity

Scope insensitivity happens whenever a statistic has huge emotional impact but in reality has little relevance to the issues and challenges it purports to illuminate.

It is scope insensitivity that makes conscientious Californians willing to put a bucket in their shower. They believe that by faithfully capturing some of that shower water that otherwise goes down the drain, and painstakingly reusing that water to fill their toilet tank, or water some houseplants, they’re going to help manage water scarcity in California.

This is well intentioned but ridiculous. Imagine if 40 million Californians saved a gallon of water from their daily shower every day, never missing a day, as if every Californian would ever do such a thing. That would amount to 44,836 acre feet per year, which equates to one-half of one percent of California’s average annual urban water consumption. And water going down the drain in California’s homes is already either reused, or could be with investment in upgraded wastewater treatment plants.

Examples of scope insensitivity abound. On a grander scale, consider the previously mentioned impact of the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant, which if they ever built it, would release 55 million gallons of brine into the ocean every day. That seems like a terrifying amount of brine, even though desalination brine is merely somewhat saltier seawater. But the California current sweeps an estimated 250 quadrillion gallons per day of ocean water past the west coast. The Huntington Beach desalination plant’s projected 55 million gallons of […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 11) – The Desalination Option

On May 12, the California Coastal Commission Board of Directors voted 11-0 to deny the application from Poseidon Water to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Since 1998, Poseidon has spent over $100 million on design and permit work for this plant. At least half of that money was spent on seemingly endless studies and redesigns as the Coastal Commission and other agencies continued to change the requirements. Poseidon’s denial makes it very unlikely another construction contractor will ever attempt to build a large scale desalination plant on the California coast.

This is a historic mistake. If you’re trying to eliminate water scarcity, desalination is an option you can’t ignore. Desalination has the unique virtue of relying on a literally inexhaustible feedstock, the world’s vast and salty oceans. At an estimated total volume of 1.1 quadrillion acre feet (1.1 billion million acre feet), there will always be enough ocean.

A balanced appraisal of desalination would acknowledge its potential while also recognizing the absurdity of suggesting it is a panacea. On one hand, desalination can be an indispensable solution to water scarcity. In Israel, for example, five massive desalination plants on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea produce nearly a half-million acre feet of fresh water per year, an amount the nation plans to double by 2030. Israel’s Sorek Desalination Plant, located a few miles south of Tel Aviv, produces 185,000 acre feet of fresh water per year, from a highly automated operation that […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 10) – Time to Stop Wasting Wastewater

If there is any source of water that ought to be optimized, it is the wastewater produced by California’s urban centers. Perennially issuing from sewage treatment plants throughout the state, every year this torrent of mostly treated effluent is equivalent in volume to the San Joaquin river in a wet year.

The California Department of Water Resources estimates statewide urban water consumption at approximately seven million acre feet per year. Just over three million of that total is estimated to be so-called “interior” water use, which means this water is flushed or drained through sewer systems into a wastewater treatment plant. In most cases, after being treated, this water is discharged into California’s rivers or emptied directly into the Pacific Ocean.

But there is an opportunity to do much more. Insufficiently treated wastewater being discharged into the Sacramento Delta and its tributaries have resulted in a buildup of excess nitrogen and other pollutants, harming these ecosystems. This same problem is playing out along the Southern California coast, where millions of acre feet of imported water is used once, insufficiently treated, and dumped into the Pacific.

In all of these cases, this water could be put to beneficial use. If California’s inland cities were to treat their wastewater to higher standards, even if it were still just released into the San Francisco Bay, or the Sacramento / San Joaquin Delta or its tributaries, it would increase California’s water supply, because it would reduce the need to maintain […] Read More

The Abundance Choice (part 9) – Reservoirs Are Part of the Solution

In May 1957, Harvey Banks, then director of the California Department of Water Resources, submitted “The California Water Plan” to the governor and state legislature. On page 14 of part one of this comprehensive document, Table 3 depicts what Banks and his team determined to be the “Estimated Present and Probable Ultimate Mean Seasonal Water Requirements.” The scale of their ultimate expectations reveals the magnitude of the challenge they had accepted.

At the time, the estimated statewide water requirements were 19.0 million acre-feet (MAF) per year for agriculture, which they estimated would ultimately peak at more than double that amount, 41.1 MAF/year. The total urban and miscellaneous use per year at the time was 2.0 MAF/year, which they estimated would eventually quintuple to 10.0 MAF/year. In all, California’s mid-century water planners intended to build infrastructure capable of delivering to farms and cities 51.1 million acre-feet per year.

This is a fascinating statistic, because this ultimate goal, set 65 years ago, easily fulfills the goal anyone might set who wishes to realize water abundance in California today. As we have seen, the average total water use in California in recent years for farms and cities was 41.6 million acre feet per year, well short of the 51.1 MAF goal set by Harvey Banks and his team back in 1957.

An examination of what they intended to build in order to accomplish this objective back then, compared to how it could be possible today, can uncover encouraging insights. To view this […] Read More