The proposed desalination plant would be located next to this AES facility in Huntington Beach
The proposed desalination plant would be located next to this AES facility in Huntington Beach
Brandon Ferguson

Desalination Versus Conservation: Who Wins?

As California grapples with some of its driest weather on record, the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) continues to negotiate the purchase of desalinated water from a yet-to-be built plant in Huntington Beach. It's a move that may provide the land of citrus with drought-proof H20--but at what cost?

Though many critics decry the proposed plant's impact on ocean life (using pipes to suck water--and fish and other organisms--from the ocean into cooling tanks), the debate over those concerns has remained relatively static. Meanwhile, opponents of desalination claim that other alternatives, including various water-conservation measures, are more cost-effective and would have the added benefit of reducing energy consumption.

Metropolitan Water Aqueduct circa 1972
Metropolitan Water Aqueduct circa 1972
U.S. National Archives

In choosing conservation over desalination, "you're reducing the energy it takes to pump the water down here from Sacramento, you're reducing the energy of heating it up, and you're reducing the flow to the sewage-treatment facility," says Joe Geever, Surfrider Foundation water-programs manager, who has been a vocal opponent of the plant for eight years.

While the idea of reducing water and electricity bills seems to be a no-brainer compared to building a $1 billion energy-gobbling desalination plant, the latter option remains an apparent favorite among officials who sit on California's complex web of water boards, districts and cities. 

MWDOC, merely one player in this elaborate patchwork, buys water wholesale from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) and sells it to 28 Orange County water agencies. The 62-year-old middleman is also charged with developing future supplies of water (such as desalination) and promoting efficiency programs (such as rebates for water-saving fixtures). 

Unfortunately for proponents of efficiency, agencies such as MWDOC have little incentive to sell less water.

"If you're selling less water, it means you have less of a revenue stream," explains Geever.

Meanwhile Poseidon Resources Inc., which is proposing the Huntington Beach plant backed by the strength of investors and lobbying firms, is currently building a $1 billion facility in Carlsbad financed with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-exempt bonds. 

Though critics of desalination maintain that water efficiency is less costly, it is by no means free. When revenues drop thanks to reduced water usage, agencies are forced to raise rates to cover their overhead costs. But, according to Geever, this doesn't mean everybody pays more.

"Your water bill may still go down because you're the one who's conserving . . . and it should just from a policy perspective. If you're not helping to resolve the problem, you should pay more," says Geever.

A 2010 report published by the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group that studies issues such as water shortage, made the case for investing in improved efficiency programs. Titled "California's Next Million Acre-Feet: Saving Water Energy and Money," the report maintained that such programs could save enough water annually to equal the output of 18 desalination plants such as the Carlsbad project.

Though the question remains as to whether several agencies can coordinate conservation efforts on such a grand scale, at least one city outside of Orange County is taking a closer look at the possibilities. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported yesterday that the Santa Cruz Water Commission is considering a study to develop a long-term, water-conservation plan. The $200,000 study will consider retrofits and incentives in advance of public debate over a proposed $125 million desalination facility that would provide the city's drinking water during drought periods. 

For Joe Geever, developing a sustainable conservation plan in Orange County would require MWDOC's board of directors to broaden its vision.

"I think they're looking at [the problem] as trying to manage their books more than looking at it as a holistic solution to multiple problems beyond their narrow focus," he says.

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