We Live in a “People Aquarium”…and the Water Is Running Out

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Another option is desalination, which would take the abundant local supply of salt water and make it drinkable. The tradeoffs are money, energy consumption, and environmental side effects. In 2010 Marin voters were asked to weigh in on a proposed desalination project and it passed. Sort of. There were two competing and contradictory questions on the ballot that led to all sorts of confusion. This is one little part of a long tedious topic, with all manner of twists and turns that I won’t go into here. The end result is that Marin never built the plant, even though a majority of voters technically agreed in principle to the concept. 

Proponents of desalination often point, once again, to San Diego, which has the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere. The plant enjoys broad popular support from the general public, even though water in San Diego is slightly more expensive and there are some environmental consequences that also cost money to mitigate. At 50 million gallons per day, the plant supplies 15% of San Diego’s drinking water. That’s enough to serve 400,000 homes. It’s the margin of error in a drought year.  

In contrast, Santa Barbara built a desalination plant in a panicked response to the droughts of the late 1980s. That plant was made redundant soon after it was installed when above average rain arrived in 1991. It then sat unused, costing the city money every year just to keep it mothballed. Taxpayers looked at the idle desalination facility and accused the water authorities of squandering huge sums of public money on an expensive boondoggle. Environmentalists were none too pleased, either. Desalination uses a serious amount of energy and discharges brine back into the sea. Santa Barbara has a similar demographic to Marin’s (wealthy, old, opinionated, and litigious), with a parallel political culture. 

Now that we’re back to drought conditions, Santa Barbara dusted off the old plant, rebuilt it to more modern and efficient standards, and ramped up water production once again. Desalination now contributes 30% of Santa Barbara’s drinking water. Managing a cyclical wet–dry climate with a short-term memory electorate is challenging. But one way or another the water always wins. You either pay for it, or you live without it. Pick your poison. 

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