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A Thirst for Answers First

August 25, 2003

As this thirsty state looks out to sea for fresh water, a report by the California Coastal Commission staff warns against moving too quickly to approve new desalination plants.

The report does not judge the idea of removing the salt from ocean water to provide water for drinking or agricultural use. Instead, it outlines concerns that should be resolved as 20 proposals for desalination plants line up before the Coastal Commission. For years, only Saudi Arabia had enough cheap power to make desalination worthwhile -- it takes a lot of energy to push water through a tiny-pored membrane that removes the salt -- but recent technological advances have cut the cost while the price of fresh water has increased.

About a fourth of the proposed plants would be privately owned and operated, the report notes, including the two biggest, proposed by Poseidon Resources for Huntington Beach and Carlsbad. Free-trade agreements have made it unclear how much regulatory power the state could wield over multinational corporations to protect the environment. (Poseidon isn't a multinational, but several of its subcontractors are.) Though most private firms offer decades-long contracts -- Poseidon would sign 40-year contracts with its water agency customers -- no one knows what would happen to prices afterward in a region that would then be dependent on the ocean to flush its toilets and water its plants.

The report also outlines potential harm to the ocean environment, both from intake pipes that carry marine life into the desalination plants along with ocean water and from the concentrated brine that would be dumped back. There are technological solutions, such as intake systems that allow fish to swim back out, but they're more costly. Commission staffers also wonder whether the infusion of new water would undermine conservation efforts and renew development pressure on some of the most scenic sections of Central California coastline, areas that have remained pristine largely because of the lack of fresh water.

None of these concerns should kill interest in the ocean as a source of potable water, but they illustrate that a belief in desalination as a simple cure for California's water ills must be tempered by the complexities. Desalination cannot replace all current water sources or rule out the need for better conservation. Desalted water is still expensive and its cost will always be dependent on the price of energy -- a price that can affect Californians deeply. Only if water companies work to meet the Coastal Commission's concerns can the ocean play an important part in slaking Southern California's thirst.

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