California, the one-time Golden State, is suffering from any number of critical issues but none is more important than the ongoing shortage of adequate water supplies for 40 million Californians. Getting a reliable water supply to California isn’t just about drinking water. It’s also necessary to continue to increase output from the nation's most productive agricultural region.
California is this country's breadbasket: fruits, nuts, row crops, cotton, cattle, and rice contribute to revenues exceeding 50 billion dollars a year. A predictable, stable, water supply is essential if America is to maintain or even exceed production at this level.
When it comes to weather, California is blessed, and at the same time cursed, with a Mediterranean climate, marked with periods of plentiful rain, flowing rivers, and 20-foot deep snowpacks in the mighty Sierras. These good years, however, are interspersed with long dry periods.
California’s 100-year weather cycles mean it’s a certainty that it will experience lengthy droughts. At times, extreme droughts in California can last five or six years. The 1912 to 1916 drought was catastrophic. 2021 is shaping up to be a repeat. Lake Mead, on the Colorado River, is facing a historic low. To date, California has had to declare 41 one of 58 counties disaster zones.
For just one example of the effects of these predictable weather cycles, Joe Del Bosque, a Firebaugh farmer, is leaving 1/3 of his 2000-acre farm unseeded this year, due to extreme drought. Without sufficient water many California ranchers and farmers must curtail operations; some will pull up stakes and go elsewhere.
Lake Oroville, Butte County, is now 39% of capacity and may reach historic lows in late August. The State Water Control Board (SWBC), a division of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) controls water storage in as many as 1400 named dams and 1300 reservoirs, 154 of which hold over 200,000 acre-feet of water. (An acre-foot of water is an acre of water one foot deep.)
In California 1 to 1.5 acre-feet will supply a year’s water for the average household. Lake Shasta, the largest reservoir, holds 4,552,000 acre-feet. It would cost about $1.4 million to add 634,000 acre-feet, enough to support 2 million people yearly, including adding more water to be added to agriculture.
However, the SWCB is environmentally opposed to any height addition to the Shasta dam. Indeed, across California, deep-rooted environmentalism has made it difficult to put into practice solutions to increase water storage or produce new water through desalination.
Thus, California is limited to only two currently existing water storage resources: surface sources such as dams and reservoirs, and subsurface aquifers, which together are designed to provide a five-year supply of water for both consumer and agricultural use. During this dry cycle, we are coming close to exhausting surface water and imperiling aquifers in this dry cycle.
Over-pumping aquifers has caused land subsidence in many parts of the state. Some of the most afflicted areas are in the San Joaquin Valley. Between 1925 and 1977, land near Mendota sank nearly 30 feet! Land in Yolo County sank 4 to 6 feet. During the 1987 to 1993 drought, pumping reduced the water table by as much as 100 feet. The land sank as much as 8 feet. Regardless of rainfall, percolation does not fully reflate. Once deflated, aquifers permanently lose holding capacity. So where does this lead us?
California is trying to preserve what water it currently has with significant, and successful, pressure on Californians to conserve across the state. However, conservation is inadequate for serving the Palm Springs area, Los Angeles, and San Diego, which are some of the highest water consumption areas of the state.
Ultimately, despite opposition from uncompromising environmentalists, California must develop new, sustainable water sources. The smart money is on studying and learning from a country with a far greater need for water than California. The tiny country of Israel can teach us what we need to know to solve our water insufficiency – if only we would listen.
An excellent book on the subject is Seth M. Segal’s Let There Be Water, which details Israel’s solution to a water-starved world. The book makes it clear that California’s answer to a renewable, stable, guaranteed, water supply is desalination.
In Israel, open-sea desalination now supplies over 40% of Israel's water needs. It has turned the Negev desert green, with fruits, vegetables, and nut orchards supplying not only Israel but neighboring Arab countries as well. Water recycling techniques are improving recapture, but “new” freshwater from desalination has far greater volume potential than recycling used water. Likewise, fog capture and other methods are a drop in the proverbial bucket.
Open-ocean desalination has the greatest potential to add thousands of acre-feet of new water. Desalination costs are significant. Israeli experience, though, established that desalination plants, like other industries, benefit from economy of scale; that is, the greater the volume of water produced, the lower the cost per unit. the way to deal with that is through economy of scale. Building large, rather than small capacity, reverse osmosis plants, sees a drop in price for each additional gallon of water produced. Typically, facilities producing more than 20 million gallons per day see a 5% to 10 % cost reduction.
Desalination plants that use existing intake and discharge facilities from power plants also decrease the cost of desalinated water. This is because desalination plants require enormous amounts of electrical power, and the most efficient way to provide it is to locate the desalination plant as close to an electrical power plant as possible to eliminate transmission power losses. This was first done by Poseidon Resources with their Tampa Florida desalination plant.
Another way to decrease costs is to capture more solar energy through rapidly developing clean energy storage technology (something that may help other commercial and industrial projects get cheap, clean energy). Newer desalination plants would probably be designed with solar schemes to provide on-site energy, which is desalination’s largest cost of operation.
For the environmentalists, modern, hi-tech filtration systems protect small living ocean habitat, including tiny fish eggs, with screened intakes not exceeding 1 mm that are specifically designed to minimize the impact on marine life. Water is taken into the system at a speed less than 0.5 feet per second ensuring minimal marine life impingement. Having screens designed to meet the 2015 California Ocean Plan Amendment for desalination should decrease, if not end, the environmental litigation that has been holding up building a plant in Carlsbad, which is supposed to process 50 million gallons of water per day.
If California would build a dozen or more large-scale desalinization plants up and down its cost, each capable of handling 50 million gallons of water per day, that would deliver in excess of 6.7 million acre-feet annually of new water, which would satisfy the need of 10.5 million households. Like money, water is fungible. When households use that “new” water, California’s existing inland water sources can support its agriculture. California’s future depends upon desalination.
Roland Martin retired as senior vice-president at SONY Corporation of America after a 30-year career in sales and marketing. For 15 years he advocated for a large-scale desalination plant adjacent to an electric utility at Moss Landing, California.