Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Desalination and Climate Change

Posted by jab12004 on July 9, 2009

I don’t pretend to know much about water, but being from California and living through droughts certainly has kept it on my mind.  While everyone knows that water will continue to increase in importance, it definitely has not reached a national level of prominence like climate change. Most people acknowledge that climate change will continue to affect water availability going forward, but it seems that water shortages are already contributing to climate change.

A recent article in the Washington Post  discusses the opening of a desalinization plant that is going to open next year in Carlsbad, CA.  Of particular note to climate change was that

Government agencies have opposed desalination because of the process’s energy consumption. The desalination plant would use nearly twice as much energy as a wastewater-treatment plant available in Orange County.

I realize that we are already using energy to treat water, but turning to large scale desalinization is a significant step.  Plants in other parts of California are also expected to be built, and many of these will require the construction of new power plants.   These new emissions will in turn contribute to climate change related water shortages.

One new power plant is a drop in the bucket compared to global emissions, but it illustrates that water needs to be a part of our national climate agenda moving forward.  If we ignore it, it will just find a way to come back and bite us.

10 Responses to “Desalination and Climate Change”

  1. Josh said

    It’s interesting that energy is the reason for balking at de-sal. In California, fully one-fifth of our energy consumption goes to the existing water system. 2% of energy moves just the water through the major canals from Nor. Cal. to L.A.

    There are other considerations, besides building power plants, when looking at California water and its impacts on global warming. Farming where we should have major solar power plants (on the West side of the San Joaquin Valley, for example) has implications for air quality, water quality, and transportation of water and produce, as well as energy requirements. Storage in open-air reservoirs and canals, and the subsequent loss to evaporation, is another concern. So is the drying of regions through the unnatural loss of water to the South, thus increasing fire hazards, wiping out all those carbon sequestering machines.

    • Danny Morris said


      Water and energy is definitely a double-edged sword in CA, especially when it comes to de-sal plants. On the one hand, a lot of people in So Cal are convinced they need new sources, and de-sal is their only option. If climate models are correct, then there’s a great deal of truth in their thinking. On the other hand, de-sal is so energy-intensive (even more so that the SWP) that it will only exacerbate the climate problem. Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, etc are all in a really tough position where they have to figure out how to live and adapt with infrastructure and management schemes that were not designed with anything else except moving water from point a to point b in mind.

      If the state can get its act together, i think it can come up with some really innovative solutions. It pretty much as to because it is in such dire straits, for the reasons you list. If you want to work on water issues, you’ll always have a job in CA.

  2. Carlos Ferreira said

    I remember reading somewhere that water has been one of the defining problems in California. Do you think water trading could help?

    • Danny Morris said


      I would argue that water is THE defining issue for California. The reason it is the world’s six largest economy is because of how it has exploited its rivers and aquifers. There are some water transfers already occurring between San Diego and the Imperial Irrigation District to its east. San Diego is hurting for water more than LA or Orange County, so it has to be really creative with where it gets its water. The system started up in the early 2000s, though I don’t think it has evolved into a full trading scheme. But as So Cal learns to live with decreased supply from the State Water Project, you’re probably going to hear more and more conversations about the opportunities for water trading. I know it’s already a big talking point. Stay tuned.

  3. Josh said

    It’s hard to get a job if you limit yourself to sensible water policy.

    Some very simple, but front-end expensive things could happen to alleviate much of our water problems here.
    1) Mandate water metering;
    2) Mandate a percentage conservation beyond current use (individuals, businesses, communities, w/ exemptions for poor folks, small businesses);
    3) End farming in the Westlands (& ‘farm’ solar, instead);
    4) Set back all levees in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta 1/4 mile each;
    5) Build a storm-wall equivalent (like in Holland) to minimize salt intrusion.

    The first two will see great changes in water consumption, the third will see a huge change in consumption but also more stable supplies for L.A., and air quality and employment improvements for the Central Valley, the fourth and the fifth will help mitigate the effects of global warming, provide safer levees (the rivers can run more naturally), improve water quality and habitat, and provide more effective storage.

    • Carlos Ferreira said

      I agree with all your points, except number 3. I wonder if it’s possible to mandate such a thing. Now, if you allow solar farmers to produce carbon offsets besides selling electricity, they may make enough of a profit to change from farming to alternative energies.

      • Josh said

        Dear Carlos,
        #3 is as much in our power as any of the others, and more so than #1. Westlands would be unfarmable if we stopped subsidizing water purchase and transfer to its infertile soils, (not to mention the HUGE federal subsidies to fertilizer, pesticide, and seed). Merely force Westlands to operate in the free market, and they would quickly switch course.

        As it is, they are in conversations with NGO’s about a switch to farming solar. They see the writing on the wall…

      • Carlos Ferreira said

        Hi Josh,

        Sure, that makes sense. The sentence sounded like you were suggesting a mandate on stopping Ag in specific areas. Thanks for clearing that out.

  4. steve said

    it only takes five minutes of google searching to see that a solar plant could be built for this purpose. a dual pipeline to and from the central valley could supply raw sea water and a return.

    The solar power could be used to create fresh water. The alternative would be to build the plant a few miles from the ocean and have a single pile to the central valley. The Montery Bay area would be a good place to get the raw water.

    It is crazy to fund so many stupid projects and not focus on water especially in California. I guess it will take people dying to get these lame politicians to get their priorities straight. (And i do mean totally lame what a mess they have created.)

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