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Will water crisis be California's third-world moment?

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  • Will it take a major city running out of water before California leaders make the decisions they should have decades ago?
     

 

While a prolonged lack of precipitation draws some media attention, growers in California are making painful decisions regarding which crops to water next year and what land to fallow. Compounding decisions related to a promised water allocation to federal contractors of 5 percent is the growing acreage of permanent crops farmers planted and the simple fact that without water, the crops will die.

It’s a situation that should not have to be so bad. But it is.

Ten cities in America are on a media-watch list of municipalities that “could run out of water.” Three of these – San Jose, San Diego, and Los Angeles – share one major commonality that has little to do with the state in which they reside. All three California cities have an almost endless supply of untapped water at their doorstep called the Pacific Ocean.

While the ocean is obviously not an immediate source of fresh water, mankind has the technology – certainly the U.S. Navy does – to desalinate water and make it potable. After the recent super typhoon that ravaged the Philippines, it was the U.S. Navy that went in with ships and began desalinating significant quantities of water for residents affected by the storm.

Why can’t we do that in our cities?

Why must Los Angeles, for instance, siphon water from the Eastern Sierra and arm wrestle Nevada and Arizona over Colorado River water rather than build desalination facilities? The environmental hazard that has been the drying of Owens Lake in eastern California’s Owens Valley could be cured quite easily if the Owens River were allowed to fill the lake instead of being conveyed south to fill swimming pools and water lawns.

While efforts are being made to address some of California’s long-term water woes through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and a real proposal to increase the capacity of Shasta Lake by raising the dam – I say “real” because an actual environmental document has been prepared and public comments submitted – officials elected by Californians to make the real tough decisions have failed, year in and year out; instead, they continue to kick the dry can down the proverbial dirt road.

While California agriculture has steadily had its water supplies cut, too many people with too many straws in too few water sources are going to force the issue of this political inaction, and the outcome is not going to be pretty. Our first-world problems of cell phone tower overload and spotty Wi-Fi connections will cease to matter when third-world problems like a lack of water becomes very real for the cities and we have to import all of our food requirements because we can’t grow it ourselves.

Discuss this Blog Entry 11

Mike Wade (not verified)
on Dec 19, 2013

California water issues are complex and the conclusion that coastal cities can simply desalinate their way to a reliable water future is a logical conclusion. Unfortunately, urban water users face many of the same challenges farm water users do. Choosing viable projects involve many factors, including cost. Currently desalination is one of the most expensive solutions to water supply demands. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides to conserve water and improve water use efficiency. There are many examples of urban and agricultural water suppliers working together to overcome water supply challenges. That kind of cooperation is the real future for California water users.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

on Dec 19, 2013

California water issues are complex and the conclusion that coastal cities can simply desalinate their way to a reliable water future is a logical conclusion. Unfortunately, urban water users face many of the same challenges farm water users do. Choosing viable projects involve many factors, including cost. Currently desalination is one of the most expensive solutions to water supply demands. Both agricultural and urban water users have made great strides to conserve water and improve water use efficiency. There are many examples of urban and agricultural water suppliers working together to overcome water supply challenges. That kind of cooperation is the real future for California water users.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition

on Dec 19, 2013

Thank you for the comments Mike. I'm curious to know just how expensive desalination is when compared to other projects such as the Governor's proposed tunnel project.
How does our military support desalination costs (proof that the technology exists) when it seems too expensive for public works projects?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 20, 2013

I worked on a missions project for three years. For a brief part of that I was on a small ship that had a reverse osmosis "water maker" that could desalinate water when at sea to provide water for the ship's use. I am sure that the military has a much better system in their ships as well as some portable units, but they use a large amount of electrical power to run and take time to produce fresh water. When water is not available it becomes a priority which justifies the means required to obtain it, but the long term running and maintenance costs are very high compared to other sources and while other sources were available, nobody planned ahead to have a system in place for such an emergency. Also the American cities will still want their lawns watered, their minimum of 1 daily shower if not more and their toilets that run more water down the drain when only containing urine. The people in the cities are generally unaware of conservation because they do not believe that their little piece has any effect on the whole, but millions of people with this philosophy cause a huge problem.

Jan McCleery (not verified)
on Dec 23, 2013

Some argue that even today, the cost of desalination is comparable to the estimated (real) costs of the tunnel will be. In addition, new technology advancements in desalination make it likely desalination will be the same or less expensive than the tunnels in 15 years. Most importantly, desalination, recycling, and other more modern water concepts actually product more water - the tunnels do not.

oldbeek (not verified)
on Dec 20, 2013

The enviro nuts are also opposed to desalinization. There is a desalinization plant being built in San Diego county at this time. It had to jump many hurdles put in place by the enviro nuts. It is privately funded and I believe there are contracts in place to buy the output for $850.00 per af. Not a bad price for water in San Diego county.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 20, 2013

The Monterey peninsula is facing installation of a desal unit to supply politically induced reduced ground/surface water availability. The costs to rate payers are enormous and permanent. Desalination of seawater may be feasible but it is incredibly expensive. As for comparison, building of another San Luis project north of Sacramento (Sites Ranch) actually would provide more water storage/capacity, where the pipeline under the delta would not, even though it will likely cost more.

Jan McCleery (not verified)
on Dec 23, 2013

Desalination costs are coming down due to new technology advancements, like recent breakthroughs announced by Livermore Labs and Lockheed Martin. And more advances continue in water efficiency, recycling, and stormwater capture. One economist estimates desalination cost will be comparable to the tunnels in 15 years. The cost of power of desalination is often discussed, yet the largest consumer of electricity in California currently is the water infrastructure - pumping from the Delta down the Aqueduct/CVP and over the Tehachapi Mountains to L.A.

We also don't need more storage north of the Delta and further stress to the estuary. We need storage south of the Delta. We need to refill the ground water during spring runoff. Restoring the Tulare Lake Basin which used to recharge the aquifers before it was dried up is one possibility. But raising Shasta or building Sites just compounds the Delta issues.

Some estimate that conservation alone would provide more water to the state than two or three new dams.

on Dec 26, 2013

Why is it, with a water crisis imminent, that there is approximately zero federal and state research money, and just about as little corporate money, being invested to discover and develop new water purification technologies? There are in fact a number of very interesting possibilities not being diligently pursued at the moment.

Anonymous (not verified)
on Dec 28, 2013

California is not in a Mother Nature drought situation…it's is experiencing an ongoing Political water drought. Very little has been done to increase water capacity in relation to increased population. There is usually plenty of rainfall in Calif, if stored correctly, to meet growing needs. The main problems are the EIR's and other huge and unwarranted expensive environmental hurdles that prevents future storage developments. The State government is, as usual, doing a horrible job at planning future water needs instead they always plan reelections first. It's only a matter of time until we run out of water…..

Anonymous (not verified)
on Jan 20, 2014

Desalination should be seen as a last resort. Los Angeles used to flood annually, and so the water system is design to shunt run off water out to sea. This system should be redesigned to capture water and save it in vast reservoirs.

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