Tag Archive for: desalination

California’s Legislature is Making the Water Crisis Worse

AUDIO: A discussion about why California’s legislature and bureaucracy is determined to dismantle water infrastructure and ways we can fight back: – Edward Ring on the Steel on Steel Show with John Loeffler.

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 only occupies about 25 acres. Up to 80 percent of Israel’s municipal water comes from desalination. Thanks to desalination, this nation of nine million people has achieved water abundance and is exporting its surplus water to Jordan.

On the other hand, just as renewable energy only provides a small fraction of the global energy supply, desalination only constitutes a small fraction of global water supply. Altogether, not quite 20,000 desalination plants worldwide produce less than 50 million acre feet of water per year. That’s an awful lot of water, but it’s less than one percent of global water consumption. To make a dent in the estimated 7,500 million acre feet per year of worldwide water consumption, desalination capacity would have to increase by an order of magnitude, to 500 million acre feet per year. In turn, that achievement would require about 200 gigawatts of continuous power, equivalent to the full output of 100 Hoover Dams.

The Energy Cost of Desalination is Not Prohibitive

Then again, as we will see, and for a variety of reasons, the frequently heard assertion that there isn’t enough energy available to spare any more of it for desalination is not true. For starters, 200 gigawatt-years is only 5.98 quadrillion BTUs, and worldwide, total energy production in 2020 was estimated at 528 quadrillion BTUs (or 17,653 gigawatt-years, or 557 exajoules, which is currently the authoritative BP Statistical Review of Global Energy’s energy mega-unit of choice). Therefore, to desalinate 500 million acre feet of water per year would only consume 1.1 percent of current global energy production.

Taking all of this into account, it’s fair to say that desalination is clearly part of the solution to water scarcity. The potential for a perpetual input of water from desalination plants to tilt the demand and supply equilibrium from one of scarcity to one of abundance should not be underestimated. Israel’s experience is proof of that.

Here in California, the energy required to desalinate seawater is considered one of the prohibitive obstacles towards wider adoption of the technology. But when the alternative to desalinating seawater is paying the energy cost of pumping it from the Sacramento Delta through nearly 300 miles of aqueducts, then lifting it over the Tehachapi pass, the energy costs become less daunting.

The following two charts illustrate the amount of energy necessary to deliver water to Southern California’s coastal cities from three differing sources: upgraded local wastewater treatment to indirect potable standards, interbasin transfer via the California Aqueduct, and desalination. Both charts examine the energy required to deliver 1.0 million acre feet of water. The first chart shows how many units of electrical energy are required, the second chart shows how much flow of electricity a power plant would have to generate in order for each system, operating continuously, to deliver one million acre feet in one year.

The first chart clearly shows that processing wastewater for indirect potable reuse is far more energy efficient than the alternatives. These figures are based on the average, taking into account the power requirements of two treatment plants, the Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS), along with the wastewater recycling plant which is proposed to be built in the City of Carson in the Los Angeles Basin. According to engineers at GWRS, the plant draws 13 megawatts to treat 103,000 acre feet per year. Information provided by Met on the Carson plant’s design estimated a 30 megawatt draw to treat 168,000 acre feet per year. Based on the average of these two figures, these plants would require 1,309 gigawatt-hours to produce one million acre feet of water.

By comparison, the figures for desalination are based on the Carlsbad plant which draws 23 megawatts to produce 55,000 acre feet of water per year – not including power to deliver the desalinated water. That equates to 3,529 gigawatt-hours to produce one million acre feet of desalinated seawater.

As described earlier, the figures for the California Aqueduct were calculated based on adding up the power consumption per unit of water lifted for each of the six pumping stations that start with the Banks pumping plant just south of the Sacramento Delta, and terminate with the Edmonston pumping plant at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains. This titanic transfer of water has an energy cost of 3,448 gigawatt-hours per million acre feet of water delivered, only slightly better than desalination.

Because every urban setting will have unique requirements for a reuse or desalination project, based on the scale, and the location and elevation of the existing wastewater treatment plant and delivery destinations, it is impossible to generalize with respect to the delivery energy required. But the estimated energy necessary to pump water from the proposed Carson wastewater treatment plant in Los Angeles through up to 60 miles of pipelines to recharge several remote aquifers probably represents the higher amount any project is likely to need. As can be seen in the final row of data below, it is significant. Based on the best estimates made available, the energy necessary to distribute a unit of water from the Carson treatment plant to its destination adds 60 percent to the total energy requirement. This is nonetheless far more efficient than the energy needed to deliver water to Los Angeles via the California Aqueduct.

Making Units of Energy Intelligible

Because units of energy and water are often communicated to the public merely to serve as nuggets of credibility, with no attempt to put them in context or even explain them, four columns appear in the above chart. Each of these units is expressing the same amount of energy. One thousand megawatt-hours (column one) is equal to one gigawatt-hour (column two), and one thousand gigawatt-hours is equal to one terawatt-hour (column three). The fourth column also depicts the same amount of energy as reported in the first three columns, but expresses it in gigawatt-years. As discussed in previous installments, using gigawatt-years (or megawatt-years) is a good way of intuitively and immediately being able to estimate the yield of a renewable energy installation, or the up-time of a power plant, or the through-put of a hydroelectric dam, and so on.

By comparing the megawatt or gigawatt “nameplate capacity” of any project that generates or consumes electricity to that same project’s actual gigawatt-year output or consumption per year, you know the efficiency of that project without having to get out a calculator. As it is, column four – gigawatt-years – is simply the number of gigawatt-hours (column two) divided by the number of hours in a year (365.25 x 24).

In this case, gigawatt-years offers an additional intuitive benefit. It makes it easy to immediately get an idea of how much of California’s total power generation would be absorbed by one of these projects delivering 1.0 million acre feet per year. For example, in 2018, California consumed 57 gigawatt-year units of electricity, which means that on average, the energy flow through California’s energy grid was 57 gigawatts to consumers throughout the state. Therefore, desalinating 1.0 million acre feet of seawater, as can be seen, would consume not quite one percent of the total electricity currently being generated in California (.403 / 57). On the other hand, most of that electricity would be offset, because the California Aqueduct would not be required to pump that 1.0 million acre feet over the mountains if that water was being desalinated locally. Then again, unlike water from the California Aqueduct that flows downhill from the top of the Tehachapi pass and gathers sufficient pressure to gravity feed every distribution extremity in its entire network, desalinated water, like treated wastewater, has to be pumped to its destination, requiring additional energy.

The next chart, below, shows what size power plant would be required to produce 1.0 million acre feet per year based on each method. This chart, which reports flows of energy, assumes continuous operation for one year to deliver the 1.0 million acre feet. A power plant twice as big could deliver 1.0 million acre feet in six months, or 2.0 million acre feet in one year, and so on.

It should be emphasized that if the reader is not familiar with the distinction between units of electrical energy and flow of electrical energy, they are urged to spend some time with this. Given the simplicity of these concepts, engineers may laugh at such unwarranted pedantry. But surprisingly few journalists, politicians, political staffers, or zealous activists are sufficiently versed in these basics, much less conversant enough in them to be familiar not only with the nature of the variables, but their actual values with respect to critical infrastructure. How can anyone evaluate policy options, or even opine with any credibility, without at least trying to see the numerate big picture? For that matter, if it comes as a surprise that desalination only consumes slightly more energy than moving an equivalent amount of water through the California aqueduct, get ready for more surprises. Advances in desalination technology are moving fast.

Addressing Other Concerns About Desalination

Ultimately, the energy cost for desalination means it cannot easily compete with wastewater reuse which requires only about half as much energy per unit of output. But the inexhaustible feedstock, the imperative to have diverse sources of water in the event of supply disruption, and fact that at some point breakthrough technologies will dramatically lower the cost of energy, all make desalination an option that ought to be part of California’s portfolio of water supply projects.

While the energy cost is one major objection to desalination, there is also concern over how the intake pipes and brine disposal pipes affect aquatic life. The debate over the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant, which would have been a twin to the recently constructed Carlsbad desalination plant, has generated a lot of information to address these environmental concerns. In March, 2021, I interviewed Scott Maloni, a vice president at Poseidon Water, the company that was attempting to build the Huntington Beach Plant. Here are excerpts:

1 – Isn’t desalinated water is contaminated with boron, which is a by-product of the desalination process?

Ocean water has higher concentrations of boron but it is removed by the reverse osmosis process. Boron isn’t a public health and safety concern, but high concentrations of boron can affect the vitality of certain crops and ornamental flowers. Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) raised a concern 6 years ago that higher boron levels in desalinated water could affect their ability to operate recycling plants because the byproduct of their plants might exceed regulatory requirements. The Huntington Beach project’s reverse osmosis system is designed to get the boron down to 0.75-1.0 mg/l, which fully addresses IRWD’s concerns.

2 – The Orange County Water District has said they will just store the desalinated water in their aquifers. Won’t that contaminate them?

Desalinated water will not contaminate the groundwater basin. The Orange County Water District (OCWD) puts 100 million gallons of treated wastewater into the groundwater basin every day using the same treatment process that the Huntington Beach desalination plant will use, reverse osmosis. OCWD has not made a decision whether to deliver the desalinated water to cities and water agencies directly through the potable water pipeline system or to inject some or all of the desalinated water into the groundwater basin. The groundwater basin is simply a means of distribution. Putting desalinated water into the groundwater basis allows cities throughout Orange County to pump more groundwater and rely less on imported water.

3 – Won’t marine life will be harmed both by dead zones at the point of brine disposal and destruction of larvae and plankton from the open intake pipes?

The facility is required by state regulations to incorporate the best available and feasible seawater intake and discharge technologies to minimize the intake and mortality of all forms of marine life. The plant will have 1-MM wedgewire screens on the intake with a through screen velocity of less than 0.5 feet per second and a brine diffuser on the outfall. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board permit published last month [February 2021] and scheduled for approval in April [2021] finds that the project with these technologies complies with all state marine life protection regulations. There will be no “dead zone” from the discharge. Salinity from the discharge will be 35.5 ppt [parts per thousand], 2 ppt above ambient salinity, at an average radius of 79 feet from the point of discharge. Finally, despite the fact that numerous state agencies have found the unavoidable entrainment of microscopic fish larvae to be insignificant, Poseidon must still mitigate for these impacts as a condition of the Regional Board permit. Poseidon will preserve, restore and create 112 acres of coastal habitat to offset these larval fish impacts including 4 projects in the Bolsa Chica wetlands and a 5th project in the form of a 41-acre artificial reef off the coast of Palos Verdes.

What ought to be obvious from Maloni’s answers is that there is no place on earth that will be more attentive to environmental concerns than California. For that reason alone, California should build more desalination plants, and build them right, in order to set an example to the world.

Something that Maloni didn’t mention was the potential of the California current to disburse brine, the saltier water that remains after fresh water is pushed through the filtration membranes. Not only is desalination brine released under pressure so it will more quickly disburse, but the California current ensures it will never concentrate in one area but will always be swept away. The California current sweeps a mind boggling 250 quadrillion gallons per day of ocean water past the west coast. The Huntington Beach desalination plant is designed to produce 50 million gallons per day of fresh water. The corresponding quantity of daily brine, around 55 million gallons, represents roughly one five-millionth of the water moved by natural current along the coast each day.

To better understand the significance of this fact, consider the studies done on the impact of brine on the Mediterranean Sea, where the equivalent of ten Huntington Beach desalination plants now operate. Compared to the California coast, there is almost no current in the Eastern Mediterranean. And yet these marine environments are not seriously compromised, and adjustments are being made continuously to ensure it stays that way. In fact, most studies concluded that there was more disruption to the marine environment from the movement of water caused by release of the brine under pressure, than by the chemistry of the brine itself. Those studies can be referenced here, here, and here.

It would be a mistake to overemphasize desalination technology. The fact that our initiative campaign included desalination among the categories of projects eligible for funding allowed our opponents to focus, disproportionately, on that specific provision. They used that to mobilize activists that have been fighting desalination for years, and to repeat all of their one-sided arguments against desalination, most of which are addressed here. But it was not a mistake to include desalination among the eligible projects in our initiative. If Californians are serious about solving the water crisis, and achieving a diversity of water sources as a hedge against disaster, they must include desalination. It might never contribute more than a small fraction of California’s total water supply, but it will be a perennial source of water, serving the arid and densely packed coastal cities in Southern California where water is imported from other regions at great cost.

In the meantime, with or without California’s involvement in desalination, the nations of the world are adopting this technology. As the Coastal Commission prevents construction of new desalination plants in California, the state loses yet an0ther way it might overcome water scarcity. But perhaps worse, California loses the opportunity to set an example of best practices to the world.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

Solving California’s Urban Water Scarcity

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California in 2019 found that per capita urban water use in the state has dropped consistently over the years, from 231 gallons per day in 1990 to 180 gallons per day in 2010, then dropping to 146 gallons per day during the drought in 2015. This clearly bodes well for addressing the next drought, which could be on the way, but doesn’t address the challenges posed by suburban households with yards, which tend to use far more water than average.

In 2014, as Californians coped with the last severe drought, the Pacific Institute compiled data from the water districts serving urban consumers across the state in order to report per capita water use by region. The findings indicated that suburban households in the drier parts of the state were consuming water a per capita rate nearly three times the average; well over an acre foot per year per household.

Confronting this challenge addresses one of the key arguments of the anti-suburb movement: If every one of California’s 13 million households consumed an acre foot of water per year, residential water consumption in the state would be 13 million acre feet per year instead of the current 5 million acre feet per year.

There are many answers to this challenge, but exploring these answers, and the attendant policy solutions, should not merely rest on draconian restrictions on water use combined with a war on new suburban development. The other solution is to invest in infrastructure that guarantees water abundance even in drought years.

The advantages of this approach ought to be obvious: California is a so-called first world economy, with a standard of living that presumably should not submit to rationing. Californians should not have to worry about punitive fines if they take showers that last long enough to properly rinse the soap out of their hair. They should not have to wash their clothes in on-off high tech washers that take hours to complete a cycle and do a lousy job. They should be able to have a lawn if that is an amenity they value and are willing to pay a reasonable price to keep watered.

California’s suburbanites have a right to have these expectations. The economic cost to fulfill these expectations is manageable, as is the environmental impact. And by investing in infrastructure that creates water abundance in the state, a deep resilience is created that guarantees a secure water supply even during mega-droughts, or during civil emergencies where parts of the infrastructure are disrupted.

The principle that should govern suburban water use can be simple: They can use all the water they want if they’re willing to pay for it. Theoretically, there’s no reason why a suburban water consumer can’t bring their averages down that of an apartment dweller: Stop all outdoor watering and let the plants all die, install low flow, water sipping appliances inside the house, and voila, you’re down to the magic 55 gallons per day per person or less. But you’re also creating a dust bowl, and living a diminished, micromanaged life. So how much should it cost a household, if they want to consume an acre foot of water per year?

The most expensive but inexhaustible source of fresh water is via desalination. The price to the consumer for desalinated water in California today is about one cent per gallon. That is on the high side, since developers of desalination plants have to withstand decades of regulatory delays and spend hundreds of millions on permits, fees, and litigation. Removing those barriers, along with tapping into new modular designs for desalination plants that do not require as much custom engineering, ought to be able to cut those costs in half.

As it is, however, at a penny per gallon, it would cost a household $3,258 per year, or $271 per month, to consume an acre foot of desalinated water per year. That should be the benchmark.

Keeping this price in mind has useful implications. It means that if local water districts are contemplating punitive rates for people who exceed their consumption targets, those rates should not exceed $.01 per gallon. It means that coastal water districts that are already billing their customers at a rate in excess of $.01 per gallon ought to be subjected to a withering audit of their operations. Desalination is frequently derided as a ridiculously expensive way to produce fresh water. Fine. If that’s true, than start charging people less for water sourced by other means. And other means are plentiful.

For example, treated wastewater in Los Angeles County is still discharged into the Pacific Ocean at the astonishing volume of over 1.0 million acre feet per year. All of this water was imported via aqueducts, primarily from the Sacramento River and the Owens Valley. As Orange County has demonstrated, as they are within a few years of recycling 100 percent of their wastewater to potable quality, creating drinkable water from wastewater can be done for roughly half the current price of desalination.

At the same time, storm runoff in the Los Angeles Basin requires treatment as well. Rain in Southern California is infrequent but often torrential when it does hit, washing toxins off impermeable surfaces and pouring them into the storm drains. All of this water should also be treated, with some of it reused and the rest discharged into the watersheds with the toxins removed.

All of this costs billions of dollars. But by using the cost of desalinated water as a benchmark, it is clear that the ratepaying consumer can bear this cost. To the extent rates might go too high, general obligation bonds can pick up the slack. And what about developing less expensive sources of fresh water?

Why aren’t California’s water agencies investing more aggressively in runoff capture and underground storage, so that when the atmospheric rivers hit California – even in drought years there are a few of these – and dump far more water onto the state than the ecosystems require, millions of acre feet can be captured and stored for urban and agricultural use? Why weren’t the delta pumps running at full capacity back in January during what may have been the only big storms of 2021, sending water south to be stored?

The discussion of water policy as Californians face the possibility of another drought revolves around core issues, one of which is a huge political question: Are suburbs sustainable? The answer to this should be an emphatic yes. Families should be able to move to new, affordable suburbs. But to make this possible again, California must continue to invest in enabling infrastructure. Creating water abundance should be at the top of the list.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

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Objections to Desalination are Shopworn, Discredited Cliches

Anyone who still thinks that the Huntington Beach desalination plant poses a significant threat to the environment should ask themselves: Why would Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who depends on donors that never saw an environmentalist overreach they didn’t like, going out on a limb to support this project?

The reason is simple. Newsom’s talked with all the experts, he’s weighed the costs and benefits, and he supports desalination. An article earlier this week discussing the progress this project has just made towards finally getting built has triggered several in-depth criticisms, which deserve a response. But before all that, consider Exhibit A: Gavin Newsom is fighting to get this plant built.

It’s about time. Nothing gets built anymore in California, thanks to a powerful partnership between environmentalist litigators and anti-tax libertarians. Both of these special interests, both wearing ideological blinders, oppose anything that uses public funds to make so much as a scratch in the ground. From the left and from the right, they’ve combined forces to leave California’s infrastructure in tatters.

Other special interests benefit from this game. Back in a saner, less corrupt era, California’s public infrastructure was often built and maintained out of operating funds. Now bonds are even issued for “deferred maintenance,” i.e., we’re borrowing money just to maintain what we’ve got, and all that money in the state and local government budgets that used to pay for infrastructure is now fed into the insatiable maw called CalPERS, CalSTRS, and the rest of the public employee pension funds. Bond underwriters make more money, and as for pension reform, what’s that?

California’s tech sector, more omnipotent these days than ever, also loves the scarcity that comes from a neglected infrastructure. Less water? Less electricity? Better buy our gadgets. Along with the manufacturers of every not-so-durable appliance, the nerd billionaire lobby puts chips into everything from the toilet to the coffeemaker, to “help” us consume less. Don’t call it rationing, call it saving the planet. Meanwhile we’ll get rich selling the chips, and richer still selling the data the chips collect.

But Newsom knows all this, and these special interests are his constituency. So why is he defying them? Because California has been hit with mega-droughts periodically for thousands of years. It is a risk irrespective of modern climate change. And this time, that drought will find 30 million Californians living on an arid coastline, hundreds of miles from whatever shrunken supply of water might still be available. Or maybe it will be an earthquake, or a terrorist attack, at any point along California’s hundreds of miles of aqueducts and pumping stations, that abruptly halts the water being moved into California’s coastal cities.

What part of this do opponents of the Huntington Beach desalination plant fail to understand?

Q&A Regarding Desalination in Huntington Beach

While the questions that appeared in the comments section of the previous report on the proposed desalination plant were thoughtfully written and brought up important points, when researching the topic further it quickly becomes evident they are the same points that have been brought up, and thoroughly addressed, again and again. Poseidon has spent nearly 20 years and $100 million so far developing this project. It will be one of the most modern, environmentally sensitive desalination plants ever built.

To help answer some of the questions raised, I contacted Scott Maloni, a vice president at Poseidon Water. Much of what is to follow came from him. Here are some of the objections raised, and the responses:

1 – The plant is being built adjacent to a superfund site.

Incorrect. The desal plant is not adjacent to the Ascon superfund site, it’s separated by a flood control channel and several parcels of land including a parcel owned by Shopoff Development and approved by the City of Huntington Beach last month for a mixed-use development including an eco-lodge. No aspect of the desal project (treatment plant or water delivery pipelines) will be affected by the Ascon site or vice-versa. The Potential impacts on and from the Ascon landfill were studied in the City of Huntington Beach’s 2010 EIR. Opponents attempted to bring up this this issue again in the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board process last year and the water board addressed and dismissed the concern as lacking merit. Finally, the Ascon site is in the process of being remediated and this process will be finished before the desalination plant commences construction.

2 – Desalinated water is contaminated with boron, which is a by-product of the desalination process.

Ocean water has higher concentrations of boron but it is removed by the reverse osmosis process. Boron isn’t a public health and safety concern, high concentrations of boron can affect the vitality of certain crops and ornamental flowers. Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) raised a concern 6 years ago that higher boron levels in desalinated water could affect their ability to operate recycling plants because the byproduct of their plants might exceed regulatory requirements. The Huntington Beach project’s reverse osmosis system is designed to get the boron down to 0.75-1.0 mg/l, which fully addresses IRWD’s concerns.

3 – The Orange County Water District has said they will just store that water in their aquifers, thereby contaminating.

Desalinated water will not contaminate the groundwater basin. The Orange County Water District (OCWD) puts 100 million gallons of treated wastewater into the groundwater basin every day using the same treatment process that the Huntington Beach desalination plant will use, reverse osmosis. OCWD has not made a decision whether to deliver the desalinated water to cities and water agencies directly through the potable water pipeline system or to inject some or all of the desalinated water into the groundwater basin. The groundwater basin is simply a means of distribution. Putting desalinated water into the groundwater basis allows cities throughout Orange County to pump more groundwater and rely less on imported water.

4 – Marine life will be harmed both by dead zones at the point of brine disposal and destruction of larvae and plankton from the open intake pipes.

The facility is required by state regulations to incorporate the best available and feasible seawater intake and discharge technologies to minimize the intake and mortality of all forms of marine life. The plant will have 1-MM wedgewire screens on the intake with a through screen velocity of less than 0.5 feet per second and a brine diffuser on the outfall. The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board permit published last month and scheduled for approval in April finds that the project with these technologies complies with all state marine life protection regulations. There will be no “dead zone” from the discharge. Salinity from the discharge will be 35.5 pt (2 ppt above ambient salinity) at an average radius of 79 feet from the point of discharge.

Finally, despite the fact that numerous state agencies have found the unavoidable entrainment of microscopic fish larvae to be insignificant, Poseidon must still mitigate for these impacts as a condition of the Regional Board permit. Poseidon will preserve, restore and create 112 acres of coastal habitat to offset these larval fish impacts including 4 projects in the Bolsa Chica wetlands and a 5th project in the form of a 41-acre artificial reef off the coast of Palos Verdes.

The imported water that the desalinated water will replace is purported to have negative environmental impacts. By offsetting this imported water and over-mitigating for its local impacts the Huntington Beach project will be a net environmental benefit.

5 – Rate payers ultimately foot the bill. Poseidon applied to the State’s California Debt Limit Allocation Committee (CDLAC), a little known agency to ask for $1.1B out of their housing allocation budget to build a plant that will supposedly cost $1.2B.

The Huntington Beach project was invited by CDLAC to apply for PAB bond allocation. But they have not yet applied for financing from CDLAC. But these financing sources take pressure off ratepayers. In 2012, the Carlsbad desalination plant was financed, in part, with Private Activity Bonds (PABs) issued through CDLAC. PABs are tax exempt bonds issued to every state by the federal government in order to incentivize private investment in public-serving infrastructure like housing, water and transportation. The bonds are non-recourse to the state of California and the state and feds have no financial liability. The tax-exempt nature allows for lower interest rates which then accrue to the benefit of the water ratepayer in the form of lower water rates from the desal plant.

Many of the libertarian tax fighters opposed to the desalination plant in Huntington Beach either don’t understand the principles behind a public-private partnership or intentionally ignore the benefits. As the private partner, Poseidon assumes all the financial risk for developing, building and operating their plants. The public agency partners (i.e., San Diego County Water Authority and Orange County Water District) only pay for water that meets contractual specifications for quantity, quality, reliability and price. These contracts include a fixed price for water negotiated and executed before the plant is built. If the plant takes longer to build and comes in over budget, Poseidon absorbs those losses. If the plant can’t operate for whatever reason and we can’t deliver the contacted water, then Poseidon absorbs those financial losses.

The Carlsbad desalination plant has never been shut down due to permit violations. The plant has been temporarily shut down by the plant operator the Israeli Desal Engineers (IDE) on a number of occasions over its 5-year operating history to fix routine mechanical issues or for environmental issues affecting the quality of the source water from the ocean like algal blooms. Under the contract with the SDCWA, if Poseidon fails to cure the shutdowns in a specified period and/or cannot deliver the water they are obligated to deliver then they have to pay SDCWA so they can buy water to replace what they could not get from Poseidon. This is a unique arrangement in the water world and benefits the public agency and its ratepayers. At the end of the water purchase contract the public agency owns the desalination plant, so they are not just paying water they are inheriting an infrastructure asset.

Finally, it’s interesting that the term NIMBY is so readily trotted out by environmentalists when it suits them, but ignored when it does not. If you oppose high density housing, you’re a NIMBY. If you oppose new housing on California’s abundant open land, you’re not. If you oppose a solar farm that blankets thousands of acres with a blistering heat island, or a wind farm that blankets tens of thousands of acres with an avian slaughterhouse, you’re a NIMBY. If you oppose a desalination plant that will prevent people in Southern California from dying of thirst when the rains don’t fall or the pumps fail, you’re not. Fascinating.

This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.

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SoCal Desalination Plant Inches Towards Approval

In a rare and commendable display of political courage and common sense, California Governor Gavin Newsom has been working to finally grant permits to construct a second major seawater desalination plant on the Southern California Coast.

But don’t count on this new water source just yet. Despite clearing major hurdles, the “environmentalists” and their allies in the media are not going to quit.

In a predictably slanted hatchet job, poorly disguised as an investigative report, the Los Angeles Times is doing everything it can to derail the project. According to their February 26 article, “environmentalists” have serious concerns about the proposed plant, set to be constructed in Huntington Beach and using a similar design to one already successfully operating about 60 miles south in Carlsbad. But why are the only environmentalists used as sources for supposedly objective journalists the ones that disparage desalination?

Here are some of the problems that “environmentalists,” who purport to speak for everyone who cares about the environment, have with the proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Quoting from the LA Times article:

“Though the Huntington Beach facility meets the state goal of diversifying California’s water supply, it would undermine other environmental policies. The plant would require large amounts of electricity; it would sit next to a rising sea; and it would continue the use of huge ocean intakes harmful to microscopic marine life.”

These objections are easily answered. Every drop of water that is produced by the plant is water that does not have to be transported from reservoirs in Northern California, at an energy cost that rivals that of desalination. Even the most aggressive projections of sea level rise would not affect operations of the Huntington Beach plant, and even if some adaptations eventually were necessary they would be part of a larger project to protect the Los Angeles coast. As for the “intakes harmful to microscopic marine life,” the design of these intakes prevents any significant wildlife impact. The intake filters are huge, which disperses the negative pressure over a very large surface area, and the pressure is periodically reversed, freeing the filter surfaces of microorganisms.

Concerns about desalination along with the responses could occupy volumes, and have. But the notion that there is any sort of consensus among environmentalists that seawater desalination is a bad choice is false. Every option to supply the resources required to sustain urban civilization is fraught with tradeoffs. With Californians possibly facing yet another drought, desalination offers a way to take pressure off countless stressed ecosystems upstream.

Economic arguments offer a more credible case against desalination, but can fail to acknowledge the variability of the market price for water. In drought years, municipal water purchasers and farmers with perennial crops have paid well over the price for desalinated fresh water, which for San Diego’s Carlsbad plant comes in at around $2,000 per acre foot. To be sure, this price is well in excess of the wholesale price for water in wet years, which can drop well under $500 per acre foot. But for an urban area such as Los Angeles, situated on an arid desert located 500 miles or more from its sources of water, adding the expensive but certain option of desalinated water to a portfolio of water procurements is a prudent bet.

Water supply resiliency is not merely dependent on weather. Even if a Sierra snowpack reliably forms winter after winter for the next several decades, residents of the Los Angeles Basin still depend on three aging canals, precarious ribbons that each stretch for hundreds of miles. Earthquakes, terrorism, or other disasters could shut them down indefinitely. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in California’s Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

In a recent book “Winning the Water Wars,” published in 2020 by the Pacific Research Institute, author Steven Greenhut concludes the solution to California’s water challenges is to pursue an all-of-the-above strategy that embraces abundance, or as he puts it “feeding more water into the plumbing.” He writes: “In addition to building more surface and groundwater storage facilities, California can deal with its water problems by building ocean desalination plants and increasing its commitment to wastewater reuse and other innovations.” If Greenhut, who talked with countless experts while researching his book, and who is a confirmed libertarian, can support the economics of public and private investment in desalination, anyone can.

A series of California Policy Center reports in 2018 expand on the concept of water abundance. Part two of the report, “How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion,” surveys existing investments in desalination and wastewater reuse and comes up with the following capital budget: $7.5 billion to build the treatment plants to annually recover and perpetually reuse the 1.0 million acre feet of wastewater that currently is still treated and released into the Pacific Ocean. Another $15 billion to build desalination plants with a combined capacity of another 1.0 million acre feet per year. And $7.5 billion to upgrade and optimize the capacity to capture runoff, mitigate the capacious aquifers beneath the City of Los Angeles, and use them all for water storage.

This is the sort of water project that should be animating California’s politicians. There are 5.1 million households in the three counties that would benefit from this scheme – Los Angeles, Orange, and Riverside. A $30 billion capital improvement bond would cost each household $384 per year. If revenue bonds were to pass half the cost to ratepayers – a reasonable burden that would bring even desalinated water down to an affordable consumer price – the general obligation bonds would only add new taxes of $192 to each household. Debt like this is referred to as “good debt,” unlike the $100 billion or so in debt that would be necessary to complete a nearly useless, obsolete before it’s even done, make-work project like the bullet train.

Along with thinking big on the policy of water abundance, Gavin Newsom should take steps to keep the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open. That would solve the energy challenge associated with desalination overnight. Diablo Canyon, situated on a mere 12 acres, produces 1.8 gigawatts of continuous, clean electric power. Based on the Carlsbad desalination plant’s performance, the energy input required to produce 1.0 million acre feet of desalinated seawater per year is only 560 megawatts, less than one-third of Diablo Canyon’s output.

The biggest impediment to Californians achieving water abundance, along with energy abundance and abundant, affordable housing, are “environmentalist” pressure groups that purport to speak for everyone who cares about the environment. These groups have tied infrastructure development and housing development in California up in knots for decades. None are worse than the Sierra Club which, of course, bitterly opposes the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant.

A prime example of the harm the Sierra Club has done is the intense opposition they threw against Prop. 3, the state water bond that faced voters in November 2018.

This bond, losing by less than one percent, would have done amazing things for California. It was a hard won compromise between environmental groups, farmers, and urban water agencies. It would have allocated $9 billion in new funds, roughly half and half between water infrastructure projects including new runoff capture and storage, and environmental mitigation. Absolutely wondrous mitigation opportunities were lost when that bond failed, including reviving the Salton Sea and turning the Los Angeles River back into a river. Currently the Los Angeles “river” is a cliche, a gigantic concrete channel, slick as a runway, known to all American movie buffs as an obligatory leg on every car chase that takes place in downtown Los Angeles. Imagine this river if it were restored, with parks, trees, bike paths, trails and wildlife habitat, winding through the heart of a great city.

It wouldn’t have taken much for this bond to pass, but the Sierra Club objected to funds from the bond being allocated to repair the Friant-Kern canal. Their arguments were based mostly on a belief that the cost of those repairs should have been borne by the farming interests in the South San Joaquin Valley that use water from the canal, but even so, this was a minor defect.

The Sierra Club is well known for ruining what are otherwise viable compromises. For years, forestry experts have understood that the combination of fire suppression, reduced logging, and restrictions on controlled burns were leaving California’s forests dangerously overgrown. Dying trees and cataclysmic fires are the result of this neglect, and hence the conflagrations we’ve seen in recent years would have happened with or without climate change. But for decades, the Sierra Club has relentlessly opposed a return to sensible forest management. Don’t believe it? Ask Senator Feinstein.

“Sen. Feinstein blames Sierra Club for blocking wildfire bill,” reads the provocative headline on a 2002 story in California’s Napa Valley Register. Feinstein had brokered a congressional consensus on legislation to thin “overstocked” forests close to homes and communities, but could not overcome the environmental lobby’s disagreement over expediting the permit process to thin forests everywhere else.

Quoting from the Napa Valley Register, “Sen. Dianne Feinstein blames environmental ally the Sierra Club for Congress’ failure to pass legislation last month to thin national forests to reduce wildfire threats in the West.” And from the Senator herself, as quoted in the article: “”The Sierra Club roasted me.”

The bargains required to rescue California depend on extreme groups like the Sierra Club either backing off or being exposed and discredited. Over five million acre feet more water per year can be achieved through a combination of desalination, total wastewater reuse, and increased storage including building the Sites Reservoir and raising the height of the Shasta Dam. Why would sincere environmentalists oppose having another five million acre feet of water that could be left in the rivers? Why would they object to the entire Southland becoming water independent? Why wouldn’t they be thrilled by the options this water abundance would enable, such as restoring wetlands and riparian habitats up and down the state? Is this about the environment, or about money and power?

Meanwhile, the “environmentalists” that have turned California into a state of expensive scarcity get plenty of help from the media. The previously noted article in California’s newspaper of record, the Los Angeles Times, came out on February 26, only days after the Huntington Beach desalination plant got crucial approvals. And what was the thrust of this article? Reminding readers that one of the guests at Newsom’s infamous “French Laundry” dinner was a lobbyist for Poseidon, the company trying to build the desalination plant in Huntington Beach. Guilt by association. The article goes on to quote anonymous “critics” who complain that “Newsom and his political appointees are exerting heavy influence to benefit a private company that would produce some of the state’s most expensive supplies.”

The article then infers that state review of the desalination plant’s application is inappropriate, writing “Emails obtained by The Times and the environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance through the state Public Records Act indicate that top California Environmental Protection Agency officials have been involved in a water board’s review of the complex proposal.” But why is this inappropriate? The application has been stalled for twenty years. And the state oversees everything that happens on coastal land.

Piling it on, the author writes “In addition, Newsom took the unusual step of replacing a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board member who was highly critical of the project.” Good! Newsom is doing something right.

Reading this article, if you can wade through all the hackery, offers a grim assessment of how many hoops still remain before there will be one more desalination plant on the California Coast. There ought to be twenty of them operating by now. If and when the rains fail for more than a few years in a row, Californians need to remember how and why they ended up so thirsty.

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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How to Make California’s Southland Water Independent for $30 Billion

The megapolis on California’s southern coast stretches from Ventura County on the northern end, through Los Angeles County, Orange County, down to San Diego County on the border with Mexico. It also includes the western portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Altogether these six counties have a population of 20.5 million residents. According to the California Department of Water Resources, urban users consume 3.7 million acre feet of water per year, and the remaining agricultural users in this region consume an additional 700,000 acre feet.

Much of this water is imported. In an average year, 2.6 million acre feet of water is imported by the water districts serving the residents and businesses in these Southland counties. The 701 mile long California Aqueduct, mainly conveying water from the Sacramento River, contributes 1.4 million acre feet. The 242 mile long Colorado River Aqueduct adds another 1.0 million acre feet. Finally, the Owens River on the east side of the Sierras contributes 250,000 acre feet via the 419 mile long Los Angeles Aqueduct.

California’s Plumbing System
The major interbasin systems of water conveyance, commonly known as aqueducts

California’s Overall Water Supplies Must Increase

Californians have already made tremendous strides conserving water, and the potential savings from more stringent conservation mandates may not yield significant additional savings. Population growth is likely to offset whatever remaining savings that may be achievable via additional conservation.

Meanwhile, the state mandated water requirements for California’s ecosystems continue to increase. The California State Water Board is finalizing “frameworks” that will increase the minimum amount of flowrequired to be maintained in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers order to better protect fish habitat and reduce salinity in the Delta. And, of course, these rivers, along with the Owens and Colorado rivers, are susceptible to droughts which periodically put severe strain on water users in California.

At about the same time, in 2015, California’s legislature began regulating groundwater withdrawals. This measure, while long overdue, puts additional pressure on urban and agricultural users.

California’s water requirements for healthy ecosystems, a robust and growing farm economy, as well as a growing urban population, are set to exceed available supply. Conservation cannot return enough water to the system to fix the problem.

How Can Water Supplies Increase?

In Southern California, runoff capture is an option that appears to have great potential. Despite its arid climate and perennial low rainfall, nearly every year a few storm systems bring torrential rains to the South Coast, inundating the landscape. Until the Los Angeles River was turned into a gigantic culvert starting in 1938, it would routinely flood, with the overflow filling huge aquifers beneath the city. Those aquifers remain, although many are contaminated and require mitigation. Runoff harvesting for aquifer storage represents one tremendous opportunity for Southern Californians to increase their supply of water.

The other possibilities are sewage recycling and desalination. In both cases, Southern California already boasts some of the most advanced plants in the world. The potential for these two technologies to deliver massive quantities of potable water, over a million acre feet per year each, is now predicated more on political and financial considerations than technological challenges.

Recycling Waste Water

Orange County leads the United States in recycling waste water. The Orange County Sanitation District treats 145,000 acre feet per year (130 million gallons per day – “MGD”), sending all of it to the Orange County Water District’s “Ground Water Replenishment System” plant for advanced treatment. The GWRS plant is the biggest of its kind in the world. After being treated to potable standards, 124,000 acre feet per year (110 million GPD), or 85 percent of the waste water, is then injected into aquifers to be stored and pumped back up and reused by residents as potable water. The remainder, containing no toxins and with fewer total dissolved solids than seawater, is discharged harmlessly into the ocean.

Currently the combined water districts in California’s Southland discharge about 1.5 million acre feet (1.3 billion GPD) of treated wastewater each year into the Pacific Ocean. Only a small percentage of this discharge is the treated brine from recycled water. But by using the advanced treatment methods as are employed in Orange County, 85% of wastewater can be recycled to potable standards. This means that merely through water reuse, there is the potential to recycle up to another 1.2 million acre feet per year.

Needless to say, implementing a solution at this scale would require major challenges to be overcome. Currently California’s water districts are only permitted to engage in “indirect potable reuse,” which means the recycled water must be stored in an aquifer or a reservoir prior to being processed as drinking water and entering the water supply. By 2023, it is expected the California Water Board will have completed regulations governing “direct potable reuse,” which would allow recycled water to be immediately returned to the water supply without the intermediate step of being stored in an aquifer or reservoir. In the meantime, it is unlikely that there are enough uncontaminated aquifers or available reservoirs to store the amount of recycled water that could be produced.

Desalinating Seawater

The other source of new water for Southern California, desalination, is already realized in an operating plant, the Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County. This plant produces 56,000 acre feet per year (50 MGD) of fresh water by processing twice that amount of seawater. It is the largest and most technologically advanced desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. It is co-located with the Encina Power Station, a facility that uses far more seawater per year, roughly ten times as much, for its cooling systems. The Carlsbad facility diverts a portion of that water for desalination treatment, then returns the saltier “brine” to the much larger outflow of cooling water at the power plant.

Objections to desalination are many, but none of them are insurmountable. The desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach, for example, will not have the benefit of being co-located with a power plant that consumes far more seawater for its cooling system. Instead, this proposed plant – which will have the same capacity as the Carlsbad plant – will use a large array of “wet filters” situated about 1,500 feet offshore, on the seabed about 40 feet below the surface, to gently intake seawater that can be pumped back to the plant without disrupting marine life. The outgoing brine containing 6 percent salt (compared to 3% in seawater) will be discharged under pressure from an underwater pipe extending about 1,800 feet offshore. By discharging the brine under pressure, it will be instantly disbursed and immediately dissipated in the powerful California current.

While desalination is considered to be energy intensive, a careful comparison of the energy cost to desalinate seawater reveals an interesting fact. It takes a roughly equivalent amount of electricity to power the pumps on the California aqueduct, where six pumping stations lift the water repeatedly as it flows from north to south. To guarantee the water flows south, the California aqueduct is sloped downward by roughly one foot per mile of length, meaning pump stations are essential. The big lift, of course, is over the Tehachapi Mountains, which is the only way to import water into the Los Angeles basin.

Barriers to Implementation – Permitting & Lawsuits

The technological barriers to large scale implementation of water recycling and desalination, while significant, are not the primary impediments. Permitting and financing are far bigger challenges. Moreover, financing costs for these mega projects become more prohibitive because of the difficulties in permitting.

The process necessary to construct the proposed Huntington Beach Desalination Plant is illustrative of just how difficult, if not impossible, it is to get construction permits. The contractor has been involved in the permitting process for 16 years already, and despite significant progress to-date, still expects approval, if it comes, to take another 2-3 years.

One of the problems with permitting most infrastructure in California is that several agencies are involved. These agencies can actually have conflicting requirements. Applicants also end up having to answer the same questions over and over, because the agencies don’t share information. And over the course of decades or more, the regulations change, meaning the applicant has to start the process over again. Compounding the difficulties for applicants are endless rounds of litigation, primarily from well-funded environmentalist organizations. The failure to-date of California’s lawmakers to reform CEQA make these lawsuits potentially endless.

Barriers to Implementation – Financing

Even if permitting were streamlined, and all technical challenges were overcome, it would be a mistake to be glib about financing costs. Based on the actual total cost for the Carlsbad desalination plant, just under $1.0 billion for a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year, the capital costs to desalinate a million acre feet of seawater would be a daunting $18.0 billion. On the other hand, with permitting reforms, such as creating a one-stop ombudsman agency to adjudicate conflicting regulations and exercise real clout among the dozens of agencies with a stake in the permitting process, billions could be shaved off that total. Similarly, CEQA reforms could shave additional billions off the total. How much could be saved?

The Sorek desalination plant, commissioned in Israel in 2015, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 185,000 acre feet of water per year. Compared to Carlsbad, Sorek came online for an astonishing one-sixth the capital cost per unit of capacity. While there’s undoubtedly more to this story, it is also undeniable that other developed nations are able to deploy large scale desalination plants at far lower costs than here in California.

Financing costs for water recycling, while still staggering, are (at least in California) not comparable to those for desalination. The GWRS water recycling plant in Orange County was built at a capital cost of $905 million – $481 million was the initial cost, the first expansion cost $142 million, and the final expansion cost $282 million. This equates to a capital cost of $7,300 per acre foot of annual yield. If that price were to apply for new facilities to be constructed elsewhere in the southland, one million acre feet of recycling capacity could be built for $7.3 billion. Until there is direct potable reuse, however, it would be necessary to add to that cost the expense of either constructing storage reservoirs, or decontaminating aquifers for underground storage.

It’s anybody’s guess, but with reasonable reforms to contain costs, and taking into account additional investments in aquifer mitigation, a budget to make California’s Southland water independent might look like this:

  • 1.0 million acre feet from water recycling – $7.5 billion
  • 1.0 million acre feet from desalination – $15.0 billion
  • 0.5 million acre feet from runoff capture and aquifer mitigation – $7.5 billion

Total – $30 billion.
How much again is that bullet train? Water abundance in California vs. high speed rail

While runoff capture, water recycling, and desalination have the potential to make Southern California’s coastal megapolis water independent, it will take extraordinary political will and innovative financing to make it happen. The first step is for California’s voters and policymakers alike to recognize that conservation is not enough, that water supplies must be increased. Once the political will is established, it will be necessary to streamline the regulatory process, so cities, water agencies, and private contractors can pursue supply oriented solutions, at realistic prices, with a reasonable certainty that their applications will be approved.

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What Californians Could Build Using the $64 Billion Bullet Train Budget

California’s High-Speed Rail project fails to justify itself according to any set of rational criteria. Its ridership projections are absurdly inflated, its environmental benefits are overstated if not actually net detriments, and its cost, its staggering cost, $64 billion by the latest estimate, overwhelms anyone with even a remote sense of financial proportions. To make this final point clear, here is an assortment of California infrastructure projects that could be paid for with a $64 billion budget.

If these projects were built, instead of the bullet train, Californians would have abundant, cheap electricity, abundant fresh water, and upgraded roads and freeways capable of handling all the traffic a surging economy could possibly dish out.

(1) Build 10 natural gas power plants generating 6.2 gigawatts of electrical output for $5.7 billion.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts can be built at a capital cost of $568 million. Someday, when electricity storage technologies are inexpensive and safe, the solar age can ripen to maturity, but in the meantime, California’s private energy companies can tap abundant in-state natural gas reserves, enabling California’s public utilities to provide cheap electricity to the public.

Since California’s peak demand rarely exceeds 50 gigawatts, increasing capacity by 12% will drive the price for electricity way down, making California competitive again with other states. Cheap electricity will also obviate the need to force consumers to purchase extremely expensive “energy sipping” appliances that are internet enabled, monitor your behavior and penalize you if you run your dryer at the “wrong” time, break down a lot, are unnecessarily complex, and require ongoing warranty and software upgrade payments forever.

Who needs that? Build natural gas power plants and develop natural gas.

(2) Build plants to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet of seawater per year, supplying 1/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $15 billion.

Desalination plants are being developed all over the world, and California, with only one major desalination plant operating (Carlsbad in San Diego), is way behind. Desalination requires no more energy today than the amount of energy already being used to transport water from California’s northern regions several hundred miles south (and over the Tehachapi mountains) to Southern California’s coastal cities. The California current, second in flow volume only to the legendary Gulf Stream, can easily disperse the brine left over after extracting fresh water. The energy and environmental issues surrounding desalination have been addressed, and nobody would ever build these plants more responsibly than Californians.

While desalinating water from the sea, at a capital cost of $15,000 per acre foot of annual output, is the most expensive means of increasing California’s water supply, it has the unique virtue of being the only way to actually create fresh water, as opposed to reuse or redistribution. It is a technology that has been proven at large scale for decades and is a necessary part of California’s strategy to increase water security as the state alternates between wet and dry multi-year weather cycles.

What Californians Could Build on a $64 Billion Budget

(3) Build plants to reclaim and reuse 2.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, supplying 2/3 of ALL California’s residential (indoor and outdoor) water requirements for $10 billion.

Californians produce about 3.0 million acre feet of sewage per year, and today only a small fraction of that sewage is treated to “potable” (drinkable) standards. In California’s huge coastal urban centers this sewage is treated sufficiently to be released into the environment where it wasted as outfall into the ocean. A recent installation in Orange County, the “Ground Water Replenishment System” (GWRS) plant, reclaims as indirect potable water 70,000 acre feet of sewage per year, at a capital cost of only $350 million (not much when compared to the bullet train budget). This equates to a capital cost of $5,000 per acre foot of annual output, which is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase the supply of fresh water for Californians.

Sewage reuse combined with desalination not only have the potential to fulfill 100% of California’s residential water requirements for a combined price of $25 billion, but the treated water can be injected into coastal aquifers, combating saltwater intrusion. Currently these aquifers are often replenished with water transported from rivers hundreds of miles to the north, at equal or greater cost.

(4) Build the Sites Reservoir for $4.4 billion.

Anyone who has taken a look recently at the San Luis Reservoir in Central California, now 100% full, can appreciate the beauty of off-stream storage. Fed by surplus run-off water that is delivered there by aqueduct, and available for farms and urban use, this reservoir minimizes environmental harm because it doesn’t block the flow of any river. Like San Luis and just as big, the proposed Sites Reservoir, with a planned capacity of 1.8 million acre feet, will be situated in the semi-arid foothills of California’s Central Valley. Unlike San Luis, the Sites Reservoir will require almost no aqueduct, because it will be up in the northern Central Valley, immediately west of the Sacramento River. If the Sites were available today, it would already be filled up with runoff from this year’s many storms, and filling it would have taken pressure off of levees from Sacramento all the way to the delta.

The vast, 100% full San Luis reservoir, 84 square miles, holding 2.0 MAF.

(5) Build the Temperance Flats Reservoir for $3.3 billion.

While this proposed reservoir is in-stream, and would dam the San Joaquin River, it nonetheless has virtues that make a strong argument for its construction. First of all, there are already dams on the San Joaquin River, which would be submerged beneath the larger Temperance Flat dam. With planned storage of 1.3 million acre feet, the Temperance Flat reservoir would guarantee more water to farmers in the dryer reaches of the San Joaquin Valley even during droughts. It would also ensure a reliable flow into the San Joaquin river, to protect its riparian habitats during droughts.

(6) Widen and resurface every major interstate (and then some) in the entire state.

Are you tired of risking your life on Interstate 5 when it’s only two lanes in each direction, and trucks clog the slow lane and speeding tailgaters own the fast lane? Then spend $15.4 billion to add lanes and resurface the entire length of Highway 101 (807 miles), Interstate 5 (796 miles), Route 99 (415 miles), Interstate 15 (294 miles), Interstate 10 (243 miles), Interstate 80 (204 miles), and Interstate 8 (172 miles). According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, this will cost $5.25 million per mile, and the freeways just listed total 2,931 miles.

(7) Fix the Potholes.

With everything noted so far, we have only used up $53.8 billion. That is, for only 84% of the bullet train budget, we have delivered to Californians cheap, abundant energy, abundant water, and unclogged our major freeways. But we still have $10.2 billion left. What to do? Why not fix the potholes? For $10.2 billion, we can resurface 8,160 miles of 4-lane roads, or, presumably, an even greater length of 2-lane roads. Isn’t that the first thing that goes when governments go astray, and prioritize pet (and useless) environmentalist mega-projects ahead of serving the public? Potholes?

Apart from the fact that a few farms have been purchased in Fresno County, and a few pylons have been stuck in the ground, and a handful of extremely well-paid bureaucrats are doing everything they can to preserve their jobs, why is high speed rail still being pushed? The reasons are a disappointing example of our dysfunctional democracy here in California. Because you could accuse every project on the above list of being susceptible to cronyism and cost-overruns, and you’d be right. Just as the Bullet Train will never get built for a mere $64 billion, it is likely these projects will also, in aggregate cost more than $64 billion. But we’d have abundant energy, abundant water, and a 21st century network of wide, upgraded freeways. If you’re going to play the innately corrupt game of public works, build things that help people live better, more prosperous lives!

Instead, California contends with an alliance of financial oligarchs whose pecuniary interests depend on Californians paying punitive prices for energy and water. Their green energy and high-tech ventures depend on forcing Californians to completely retool their homes with new, upgraded appliances (all of them – washer, dryer, dishwasher, air-conditioner, furnace, refrigerator) that are efficient to the point of diminishing returns. As mentioned, these appliances now double as surveillance devices that will force us to live our lives according to utility company algorithms. Utility companies, of course, no longer make profits based on the quantities of energy or water they deliver, but rather on fixed percentages over cost, which means to please their shareholders, units of energy and water have to cost more. Much more. And manufacturers are thrilled to design all this frippery into their appliances so they can sell them as a service requiring perpetual payments, instead of a durable good.

Our household has a washer that we bought, already used, for $25 in 1999. It has never broken down. No ongoing warranty payments. No ongoing “software update” payments. Do you think you’ll be able to say any of that about any appliance purchased in the last few years?

For anyone who wants this lucrative, exploitative party for the oligarchs to continue, high speed rail is a good place to put what remains of California’s public financing capacity. The environmentalist lobby, firmly in the pocket of these oligarchs, offers up high speed rail to private construction unions, who lack the clout or the vision to demand something that might actually adhere to their ideals – i.e., the projects listed above, that would help ordinary working families in California.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.


(1-a) Cost for modern natural gas power plant generating 620 megawatts
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

(1-b)  Peak megawatt demand in California (July 24, 2006) just over 50 gigawatts
Source: California ISO, California Peak Load History 1998 through 2016

(2-a) Cost for desalination plants – global comparisons:
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Desalination

Recently constructed desalination plants in Israel, rest-of-world, and California:

(2-b) Annual water consumption in California (million acre feet):

Source: Public Policy Institute of California – Uses and Value of Water, Table 2.2

(3) Cost for sewage reuse plants:
Orange County GWRS IPR Project (2008) Fountain Valley
Source: California Policy Center, Rebuilding California’s Infrastructure – Water Reuse

(4) Most recent and highest cost-estimate for Sites Reservoir:
Source: KCRA News

(5) Highest cost-estimate for Temperance Flat Reservoir (estimates range from $1.2 billion to $3.3 billion):
Source: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

(6 and 7 – a)  Cost to add lanes and resurface freeways:
Source: America Road & Transportation Builders Association

(6 and 7 – b) Length of California’s principal highways and freeways:
Source: CaHighways.org

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Resource Development vs. Rationing

California’s decision to “decouple” the amount of revenue their regulated public energy utilities receive from the amount of energy they deliver is hailed by environmentalists as a breakthrough. But the consequences of this decision to enforce artificial scarcity are not fully appreciated. It might be argued that this policy of “decoupling” the amount of money you collect from the amount of value you produce is a dangerous tampering with the natural laws of supply and demand, and is orchestrated by special interests who benefit while the consumer is victimized. Now the NRDC, in a report released last month entitled “Making Every Drop Work: Increasing Water Efficiency in California’s Commercial, Industrial, and Institutional (CII) Sector,” wants to do the same thing to California’s water supply.

Here are two of the recommendations the NRDC makes that make chills run down my spine:

(1) Prioritize water conservation above increasing supply. The State of California should codify the requirement that efficiency improvements precede supply side resources—as it did in the energy sector—to motivate investment in water efficiency and recycling by agencies who might otherwise be awaiting development of traditional water supplies.

(2) Decouple water agencies’ sales from revenue. Water agencies should not need to rely on water sales to assure their fiscal stability. Water agencies should instead adopt a structure that allows them to recover additional money from customers if sales are significantly below projections. This revenue adjustment mechanism will enable water agencies to aggressively promote efficiency and maximize the conservation price signal for customers.

There is nothing wrong with encouraging conservation. But “maximizing the conservation price signal for customers” is akin to a cell phone company charging you less than 1.0 cents per minute for the first 500 minutes per month per your plan, then charging you 50 cents per minute for every minute you talk over your agreed 500 minutes per month. This unpopular practice amounts to rationing, and bears no relationship to the underlying costs to the provider. The 501st minute cost no more than the 500th, but the consumer paid 50 times as much to use that 501st minute. Now they want to do this with our water.

An alternative that would fulfull goals of water conservation would be to have progressive pricing based on water use, but based on reasonable tiers instead of these cliffs. This alternative to rationing could be calibrated to yield the same results, but wouldn’t punish people who simply place a higher value on using lots of water than others. People with gardens, or who like long showers, or otherwise have a legitimate personal preference for high per capita water use might simply pay 20% more for units of water use that go over their “limit,” and maybe an additional 20% if their usage goes beyond, say, twice their “limit.” Gradually escalating pricing tiers instead of imposing punitive tiers is a more humane way to encourage reductions in water use.

Returning to the NRDC’s other recommendation, prioritizing water conservation over increasing water supply is a recipe for disaster. There are significant ways to increase supplies of water – rebuild and upgrade interbasin aqueducts, build additional collection basins to harvest and store storm runoff, develop aquifer storage to harvest and store storm runoff, build more and better water treatment facilities to recycle waste water and send it back upstream, develop large-scale desalination plants, encourage “smart irrigation” in the agricultural sector which consumes 80% (or more) of California’s water supply, and even, gasp, build a few more dams. Just allowing more farmers to sell their water to urban consumers would easily alleviate water shortages. The idea that a prosperous, technologically advanced region like California faces an inevitable water crisis is ridiculous, and the only way a genuine water crisis may occur is if development of water supplies is not given equal or greater priority to water conservation.

The reason these supply-side alternatives aren’t explored is because they require investment, and these kinds of infrastructure investments are prohibitive in California thanks to the power of trial lawyers who work for environmentalist nonprofits. More than anything else, rippling across the entire supply chain, the inability to cost-effectively develop infrastructure is because environmental lawsuits have tied virtually everything up in knots. And, of course, if these supply-side infrastructure development solutions were implemented, there wouldn’t be a “crisis” anymore.

Other than trial lawyers and environmentalist nonprofits, who benefits from all this? Not the consumer, who pays more for water and energy than water and energy should cost. Not necessarily even the environment, since desalination plants on the Southern California coast could give back millions of acre feet of water each year to the delta. Nor, speaking of the delta, would a peripheral canal, which would be able to inject water into the delta wherever needed, need harm the environment, especially if it were built in conjunction with massive development of desalination capacity on the Southern California coast.

The powerful additional beneficiaries of resource strangulation, artificial scarcity, and environmental alarm are California’s public sector agencies, who can take the artificially inflated prices, “decoupled” from any supposed obligation to develop infrastructure sufficent to actually deliver water and energy to the public at a reasonable price, and use it instead to inflate their salaries and benefits. The collusion between public sector special interests and environmentalist nonprofits is not being explored by journalists nearly as much as it deserves. In general, there is to-date a shameful failure of mainstream journalists, who presumably share a concern for the aspirations of the economically less fortunate, to expose these hidden agendas behind many “green” recommendations.