Is desalination the answer for drought in Ventura County?

Although climate change was hardly mentioned in the two-hour discussion of desalination led by Ventura County supervisor Steve Bennett last Thursday at the county government center, the question of drought has clearly been very much on the minds of water officials in the county.

Even more alarming, possibly, might be an earthquake that could interrupt supplies to county residents from the State Water Project, which supplies most of the water to about 640,000 people in the county.

Said Susan Mulligan, an engineer who manages the Calleguas district that supplies most of the county, during the discussion:

“The question of an earthquake cutting us off isn’t a question of if; it’s a question of when. If 75 percent of the water [from the State Water Project] is cut off, we don’t even have health and safety water at that point.”

The quote comes from a story in the Ventura County Star by Tony Biascotti. The even-handed story stayed away from conclusions, except to point out one vexing fact. Because it will take on the order of fourteen years to permit, research, and build a seawater desalination plant — according to a study cited by Mulligan — such a plant won’t solve our current water shortage woes right now.

Bennett took an unusual and fresh approach to the water supply question: stating no position of his own, and pointing out that the county has no direct authority over water, he nonetheless brought four real experts to the podium, gave them ten minutes each to make a presentation, and then asked questions — about cost, about permitting, about alternatives, and so on. Here’s the video, from his supervisorial site.

From this reporter’s perspective, the most useful advice came from Joshua Haggmark of Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara was once dependent, as is western Ventura County now, mostly on a local watershed and reservoir (Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara), augmented with groundwater from wells. After an on-and-off again history with a desalination plant, build in response to the last drought in the late 1980’s early 1990’s, Santa Barbara has now has all but completely exhausted Lake Cachuma. Until it really begins to rain again, if it ever does, the county now relies on a great variety of different sources, as illustrated by this slide from Haggmark’s presentation:

waterhaggmarkpresentation

 

 

 

 

The strongest proponent of desalination was Scott Maloni, a vice-president from a private company called Poseidon that has built a fairly large plant in San Diego that supplies a significant portion of the county’s water. That’s the upside: the downside is that it cost a billion dollars, and took fifteen years to construct and permit.

Two significant questions were not asked, from this reporter’s perspective. What plans, if any, does Mulligan and Calleguas have to develop some form of desalination? They clearly have a need for water for at the minimum health and safety for two-thirds of the county: What are they thinking?

Second, if as much science indicates Southern California is headed for a substantially drier future, is there any real alternative to at least some desalination? (Desalination doesn’t have to draw from the sea — it’s cheaper and easier to desalinate brackish groundwater or effluent from water treatment plants, such as in Oxnard.)

(The climate change/perpetual drought question may be a hyperobject: a fact so big and omnipresent it cannot be mentioned in local reporting. This is part of a fascinating theory being pioneered by a BBC documentarian named Adam Curtis.)

But judging from the tenor of Haggmark’s remarks about what happened in Santa Barbara, my conclusion is that water districts may not have much choice but to develop a diversity of sources to survive, including some desal. He said:

“Desalination is not going to solve all your problems, but it certainly helps to have diversity in your supplies,” said panelist Joshua Haggmark, water resources manager for the city of Santa Barbara. “You want diversity in your stock portfolio, you want diversity in your community, and water supply is the same thing.”

Interesting to hear him connect the concept of diversity to both politics and investments.

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