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Mega-desalination plant opens in thirsty southern California

November 26, 2015 - UNITED STATES

The San Diego area in southern California opens a controversial desalination plant described as the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

The authorities' readiness to take on the environmental controversy and financial risks associated with the Carlesbad Desalination Plant reflects their desperation. California's four-year drought precipitated a crisis in an area already thirsty because of unremitting population growth and development.

Local environmental groups, which fought the plant, point out that the huge electricity demands of desalination will increase the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. They say that both the intake of seawater and the disposal of excess salt into the ocean can harm sea life.

The San Jose Mercury News reports that 15 desalination projects are proposed along the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay.

The financial risks begin with the cost of building the facility and continue with the cost of the electricity for desalination, both adding to the cost of water for consumers. If the plant is mothballed because the rains return, those costs won't disappear.

The New York Times cites Australia's experience with desalination and costs. The country built six huge desalination plants during a dry spell and has largely idled four of them though water customers remain saddled with several billion dollars' worth of construction bills.

The San Diego plant is notable for its scale - it will produce some 50 million gallons of drinking water a day.

In an historic move in Apr 2015, California ordered water use to be slashed by 25 percent across the state, but by most accounts the response has not had a significant effect.

For Drinking Water in Drought, California Looks Warily to Sea (NYT 11 Apr 2015)

Nation's largest ocean desalination plant goes up near San Diego (San Jose Mercury News 29 May 2014)

California Imposes Unprecedented Statewide Water Restrictions )NBC News 1 Apr 2015)

North America's largest seawater desalination plant is ahead of schedule (ABC 2 Sep 2015)

Date written/update: 2015-10-19