Desalination Versus Conservation: Who Wins?

Categories: Environment
Brandon Ferguson
The proposed desalination plant would be located next to this AES facility in Huntington Beach
As California grapples with some of its driest weather on record, the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) continues to negotiate the purchase of desalinated water from a yet-to-be built plant in Huntington Beach. It's a move that may provide the land of citrus with drought-proof H20--but at what cost?

Though many critics decry the proposed plant's impact on ocean life (using pipes to suck water--and fish and other organisms--from the ocean into cooling tanks), the debate over those concerns has remained relatively static. Meanwhile, opponents of desalination claim that other alternatives, including various water-conservation measures, are more cost-effective and would have the added benefit of reducing energy consumption.

U.S. National Archives
Metropolitan Water Aqueduct circa 1972

In choosing conservation over desalination, "you're reducing the energy it takes to pump the water down here from Sacramento, you're reducing the energy of heating it up, and you're reducing the flow to the sewage-treatment facility," says Joe Geever, Surfrider Foundation water-programs manager, who has been a vocal opponent of the plant for eight years.

While the idea of reducing water and electricity bills seems to be a no-brainer compared to building a $1 billion energy-gobbling desalination plant, the latter option remains an apparent favorite among officials who sit on California's complex web of water boards, districts and cities. 

MWDOC, merely one player in this elaborate patchwork, buys water wholesale from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) and sells it to 28 Orange County water agencies. The 62-year-old middleman is also charged with developing future supplies of water (such as desalination) and promoting efficiency programs (such as rebates for water-saving fixtures). 

Unfortunately for proponents of efficiency, agencies such as MWDOC have little incentive to sell less water.

"If you're selling less water, it means you have less of a revenue stream," explains Geever.

Meanwhile Poseidon Resources Inc., which is proposing the Huntington Beach plant backed by the strength of investors and lobbying firms, is currently building a $1 billion facility in Carlsbad financed with the help of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-exempt bonds. 

Though critics of desalination maintain that water efficiency is less costly, it is by no means free. When revenues drop thanks to reduced water usage, agencies are forced to raise rates to cover their overhead costs. But, according to Geever, this doesn't mean everybody pays more.

"Your water bill may still go down because you're the one who's conserving . . . and it should just from a policy perspective. If you're not helping to resolve the problem, you should pay more," says Geever.

A 2010 report published by the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group that studies issues such as water shortage, made the case for investing in improved efficiency programs. Titled "California's Next Million Acre-Feet: Saving Water Energy and Money," the report maintained that such programs could save enough water annually to equal the output of 18 desalination plants such as the Carlsbad project.

Though the question remains as to whether several agencies can coordinate conservation efforts on such a grand scale, at least one city outside of Orange County is taking a closer look at the possibilities. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported yesterday that the Santa Cruz Water Commission is considering a study to develop a long-term, water-conservation plan. The $200,000 study will consider retrofits and incentives in advance of public debate over a proposed $125 million desalination facility that would provide the city's drinking water during drought periods. 

For Joe Geever, developing a sustainable conservation plan in Orange County would require MWDOC's board of directors to broaden its vision.

"I think they're looking at [the problem] as trying to manage their books more than looking at it as a holistic solution to multiple problems beyond their narrow focus," he says.

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I think the point of the article was to highlight the energy use that is "embedded" in our choices of water supply/demand management. Obviously, lowering the energy demand in the local water portfolio would start with EVERY conservation effort -- and most have more benefits than just reducing energy demand (which in turn reduces the price). Outdoor conservation, if done right, can reduce irrigation demand, capture rainwater for percolation, reduce polluted runoff reaching our steams and beaches -- and eliminate a portion of the "embedded energy" in our portfolio.

Indoor conservation will also reduce demand, but also reduces the energy used to treat the water that would otherwise go to the sanitation department. Maybe the sanitation department should pitch in on rebates -- they are the "free riders" of this energy reduction benefit.

And recycling wastewater takes advantage of the fact we've spent energy getting water to our homes and treating the waste. So, a marginal extra energy is needed to polish that water so it's safe for re-use. Again, reducing the "embedded energy" in our water portfolio while reducing discharges of partially treated sewage to the ocean..

Seawater desalination is just the opposite. It ADDS energy demand to the portfolio -- and consequently drives up the price much more than investment in conservation or recycling (while killing fish in the process).

MWDOC should be resolving our water demand by choosing the alternatives that lower energy demand (and price), and have other benefits beyond just water supply. Seawater desal IS NOT going to be the number one choice if they were responsible managers of our money. We don't need it and we don't want it.

Let your conservation manager out of the back office and move him to the big corner office. He is the most valuable employee in the building -- and the Board should encourage him to do more (not ignore him).


Interesting Santa Cruz addition — makes me proud to have briefly been a banana slug (but aren't those like the marines? Once a banana slug, always a banana slug). True that $200,000 for a conservation study sounds like a lot of money, but when it will prevent the public from having to foot even a portion of a $125-million monstrosity... totally worth it.

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

Of course there is another issue here -- population growth. More people in an arid Southwest --not just our fine county but the IE and further into the great basin, means more H20 use in an area that doesn't have a lot of the stuff.  And since American-born folks generally have their 2.05 kids, the population driven pressures on a limited water supply is entirely driven by international immigration. (California has had more actual Americans leave than settle here for 18 of the last 23 years).

It's funny, environmentalists and other 'progressives' used to know this. You go back and read stuff from Jerry Brown's first campaign as governor, and it was all about limiting runaway growth. But of course, that was aimed at limiting whitey's growth.

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

@jboudevin Just realize that conducting a study doesn't guarantee they will find enough 'conservation' savings to avoid building a plant. We in SoCal have had restricted flow shows and low flow toilets as code for years -- yet here we are. 


@Mitchell_Young I know you can't see it, but your obsession with race has nothing to do with this issue.


@Mitchell_Young @jboudevin Yet that technology, which accounts for a  smaller slice of the water pie, continues to improve. You'd be hard pressed to find an environmental scientist out there who would argue with the notion that there are plenty of opportunities for more efficiency.


@Mitchell_Young @jboudevin Perhaps, but having lived in Santa Cruz, I know first-hand that the people seem very different and more interested in and committed to conservation efforts. It's an entirely different culture and might be receptive to additional conservation methods. Your argument is invalid.

Why would you put the word conservation in single quotes?

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

@brandonf76 Okay, take out the last sentence, population growth means more water usage. Today, in the US, population growth is driven entirely by immigration and the descendants of current immigrants. If they were all Eastern Europeans, it still would hold true.

It is sort of rich having a guy who ran around OC in a KKK outfit being so sensitive to mentions of race.

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

@brandonf76 @Mitchell_Young @jboudevin Hey, I'm with you. I have a bucket in the shower, piss on the compost pile, etc.  But the state is projected to add 12-14 million people. Even Jerry Brown doesn't think conservation is going to do it -- he's got big H20 project on tap . But maybe he just wants to leave a legacy like his daddy.

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

@JackGrimshaw @Mitchell_Young Whether it was done 'ironically' (and against the poor dude's will), it still betrays and obsession with race on the part of this publication. 

BTW, Mr. Grimshaw, you're into California history, I give you a prize (a free OCWeekly, worth every penny) if you can ID my avatar. Hint: Came to California by boat about 14 years after Dana.


@Mitchell_Young It was a photo shoot, aho! Every time you seem to be approaching some sort or normalcy in your posts, you revert right back to the dipshit redneck stupidities you're known for ... 

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