Why Doesn’t California Build More Desalination Plants

Everybody has heard about California’s water crisis at some point, it is an issue that is constantly talked about but nothing seems to get done. It does beg the question, why not just build more desalination plants? With such a large population and economy with the largest state budget in the USA, it seems like a no-brainer. However, there are reasons why desalination hasn’t been adopted en masse, this inspired me to research and find out why.

Political pressure from environmentalists holds back the widespread adoption of desalination in California. Despite alleviating stress on natural water sources, desalination is less popular than expected; Technological shortcomings, misinformation and politics all impact California’s desalination capacity.

Technological Shortcomings

Desalination in its current form is by no means perfect, it requires large amounts of energy and produces waste products at approximately a 1:1 ratio by weight to the freshwater produced. Unfortunately, these downsides become the focus of resistance to the adoption of desalination, with the benefits overlooked in a manner along the lines of, if it isn’t perfect we don’t want it. The focus on the technological shortcomings leads to decisions being made against desalination solutions, even though an imperfect solution like desalination has many positives over the current system of plundering rivers, lakes and reservoirs to historically low levels.

Waste Products

Desalination produces a lot of waste, 58% of the total products to be precise when processing seawater. This waste comes mainly in form of highly saline ‘brine’ which is essentially seawater with half the water removed resulting in double the salt concentrations. This highly saline brine when dumped excessively at a local level leads to an increase in the salt content of the surrounding waters which can adversely impact marine life. The effect of the increased salinity is particularly noticeable in still water environments like gulfs and sounds where the water is not as readily circulated as in a higher energy environment. In California where most existing and proposed desalination plants are to be in high-energy beachfront environments, this is less of an issue, however, it still tends to be the focus of most arguments against the practice. There are opportunities with this brine, with companies looking into the viability of harvesting it for certain salts and minerals which become more economical with increased concentration.

Energy consumption

Desalination needs a lot of energy to run, whether it’s the high-pressure pumps used in Reverse Osmosis or the heaters in distillation. Reverse Osmosis is the more efficient of the two using between 3-10 kWh per cubic metre (1.14-3.79kWh per 100 gallons), Multi-Stage Flash distillation uses considerably more, approximately 17kWh per cubic metre (6.44kWh per 100 gallons). To put the energy requirements into perspective, the average household in the USA uses approximately 30 kWh per day. The key to negating this downside is to lower energy costs and increase the adoption of renewable sources like solar, wind and even nuclear.

Misinformation & Politics

Like everything in today’s day and age, misinformation and exploitation for political gain can not be avoided. Desalination is no different, particularly in such a politically charged state like California, the general trend is that the technological shortcomings of desalination as mentioned above are exaggerated and then vocalised with many key details omitted for political gain. As California is such an environmentally conscious state, residents are enthusiastic about pushing green projects and are against anything harmful to the environment. These well-intentioned attitudes of Californians towards sustainability are exploited by politicians who know it will be politically popular to be seen to be rallying against anything harmful to the environment, even if this is not actually the case, wherein lies the problem.

“Not in my backyard!”

California’s natural water sources are currently under huge amounts of stress and have been steadily in decline for decades, this leads to horrific impacts on aquatic life, the general ecosystem and the surrounding communities. As California’s natural water sources are located in the mountainous north and east of the state, the surrounding communities only make up a tiny fraction of California’s population, which means, a tiny portion of votes, which unfortunately means they become political cannon fodder. The bulk of California’s residents (and voters!) live in the bay area, Los Angeles and San Diego, the struggles and environmental impact of the rural communities near large water reservoirs are out of sight and out of mind, however, a desalination plant within their city limits is an utter abomination. As long as it’s not in my backyard is a phrase that can be applied to California’s resistance to desalination, the well-meaning inner city residents want what’s best for the environment however they don’t want it to interfere with their day-to-day lives. This means that projects with a net environmental benefit like desalination plants are often delayed or cancelled because they largely take for granted where their water comes from and have come to simply expect it to be there on demand.

Recent Examples

In recent times there have been two desalination projects that were in the media spotlight, one was cancelled after a 20-year debate on the topic and the other was more recently approved as the water situation became more dire after a hard summer.

A Huntington Beach desalination plant was denied planning approval in May 2022 due to concerns about the highly saline brine produced as waste as well as the long-term outlook for the project due to rising sea levels. For those who know Huntington beach, it is a very popular surfing destination with huge swells rolling in from the pacific each throughout the year. These waves Huntington beach is famous for are very efficient at circulating water, this leads to any saline brines quickly being dispersed throughout the largest ocean on Earth. Regarding the sea levels, new apartment complexes and other infrastructure are being built and upgraded along this beachfront area and will continue to do so for decades to come, with design adjustments made for any potential sea level increases.

“Moral of the story, apply for desalination approvals after summer?”

More recently, after a long dry summer, a desalination project was approved 20 miles south of Huntington beach near Dana Point, a less densely populated area of Orange County. The interesting point is that this desalination plant is very similar in scale and design to the proposed Huntington beach plant, it uses similar amounts of energy, is exposed to the same sea level rises and pumps out the same amount of brine into the same water body. The fact the Dana Point plant was approved when the Huntington Beach plant was cancelled shows the role politics and misinformation play in project approval. Despite its obvious benefits to the broader area, the local government agency chose to rally against the project exaggerating its negative environmental impact so as to increase favour with residents rather than make the tough decision. Then after a tough summer when public concerns around water security are higher, the government quickly approved essentially the same project 20 miles down the road.


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