California state officials might have noticed that we’re enduring yet another historic drought — one so intense that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the nation’s largest water supplier, has this week announced mandatory conservation measures that not only restrict lawn watering, but prod residents to cut back their water usage by 30 percent.
As a short-term strategy, California’s water agencies perhaps have no choice but to limit water usage given that their reservoirs are nearly empty. But imposing draconian restrictions in the midst of yet another drought is an act of desperation rather than sound policy. For years, the state has refused to build and upgrade needed water-infrastructure projects. In fact, it’s been downright hostile to them.
Around the same time that MWD announced its restrictions, the California Coastal Commission — the ham-fisted environmental agency that regulates construction along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline — issued a staff report opposing a desalination plant at a shuttered power station in Huntington Beach. The mostly private project has been navigating hurdles for years and could be operational next year.
There’s no one project or approach that will instantly fix a water crisis that has been in the making since the 1970s, when California replaced Gov. Pat Brown’s infrastructure-building agenda with Jerry Brown’s “small is beautiful” alternative. Nevertheless, desalination could go a long way toward making up lost ground — and do so in a remarkably cost-effective way.
The proposed Poseidon Water facility could meet 16 percent of the water needs of Orange County, with its 3.1-million population. A similar facility down the coast in Carlsbad meets 9 percent of the water needs of San Diego County’s 3.3-million residents. That’s nothing to scoff at in the midst of water rationing, but those who think that way obviously aren’t fixated on the plight of local plankton.
The Surfrider Foundation complains that these facilities’ water-intake systems “cause marine life mortality through impingement (pinning and trapping fish or other species against the intake structure screens) and entrainment (when intake pipes suck in and kill small species like plankton, fish eggs, and larvae) of species, and risks disrupting an area’s entire ecological balance.”
Well, OK, environmentalists will act like environmentalists. That group once noted that the Pacific Ocean isn’t a limitless resource which, although technically correct I suppose, is one of the silliest arguments imaginable considering the small sips that any de-salter takes out of the mighty ocean. But the Coastal Commission is a powerful state agency.
The actual commissioners can overrule the staff next month, but this report is the latest egregious attempt by an agency to kill the facility, and its arguments are equally nonsensical. Here’s an example: “Building this project in this location is inconsistent with the type of sea level rise adaptation and risk-avoidance planning encouraged by the state and required by the Coastal Act.”
In other words, the commission is concerned that a facility that would turn seawater into drinking water is being located next to the sea where, um, climate change could eventually raise the sea level and flood the project (and everything else along the coast). I haven’t read all of Poseidon’s filings, but I’m pretty sure the company, its investors, and insurers have taken such risks into consideration.
The report went into detail about the plankton issue, of course: “Additionally, the one millimeter ‘slots’ on the wedge-wire screens reduce by only about one percent the number of planktonic and larval organisms that are able to pass through the screens and then attach and grow on the pipe interior.” I have nothing against floating microscopic organisms — heck, whales have to eat, too — but there’s also an important concept of weighing costs and benefits.
Staffers also expressed nebulous concerns about, er, environmental justice: “The Commission’s Environmental Justice Policy was created to provide a framework for the agency to consider fair outcomes and include the voices of underserved communities whose households have been historically marginalized in the governmental review process and often disproportionately burdened by industrial development.”
Well, the plant would sit on a former industrial site and is amidst one of the most costly real-estate markets in the country (the median home price in Huntington Beach is $1.2 million) so it’s seems unlikely that the developer is purposefully targeting poor people who have no power in the permit-approval process. Did I mention that the “industrial” product is clean drinking water?
Building and operating any facility creates waste and consumes energy, but the same is true for the production of everything, from food to renewables. In essence, the commission staff is demanding that a project must have no footprint, cause no waste, be located in a place immune to any conceivable natural disaster, and have a final product priced in a way that affects poor and rich people equally.
And you wonder why California is running out of water? By the way, it doesn’t benefit the poor to mandate water rationing, especially in agricultural regions with water-dependent economies. It doesn’t help the environment to force Southland cities to increase their reliance on imported water, which ultimately comes from the state’s rivers.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office actually offered an encouraging response to the staff report (per Reuters): “This administration is committed to ensuring the sustainability of California’s water supply with an all-of-the-above strategy, and that includes desalination. Regions across California must continue to innovate on local projects as climate change makes our state’s water supply more unpredictable.”
We’ll see how the coastal commissioners vote next month, but their decision will signal whether California is finally ready to follow the governor’s words — or whether it’s going to head deep into the world of water rationing.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute and author of the 2020 book, Winning the Water Wars. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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