The Search For Drinking Water In California Has Led To The Ocean As the state slogs through a major drought, officials look for new water sources — like desalination plants that make water from the Pacific drinkable. Opponents worry about environmental damage.
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The Search For Drinking Water In California Has Led To The Ocean

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The Search For Drinking Water In California Has Led To The Ocean

The Search For Drinking Water In California Has Led To The Ocean

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. California is getting some much needed rain this week. Some parts of the state are expecting more rainfall in a couple of days than they've had in the past couple of years. Still, forecasters say it won't be nearly enough to end California's long-running drought. More than two-thirds of the state remains in extreme drought conditions. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, that has Californians thinking about alternative ways of getting water.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: This is what you wish every roadside construction site looked like. There are a couple hundred workers pounding fence posts, welding rebar and jack hammering away in the cool sea air. It's a hive of activity here in Carlsbad on the California coast, all for this: water, sea water.

Peter MacLaggan is with Poseidon Resources, the developer of this $1 billion site. He says that soon the seawater surging through this pipe 100 million gallons of it a day is going to be treated through a process called desalination.

PETER MACLAGGAN: Desalination, taking water from the Pacific Ocean, the largest reservoir in the world, remove all the silt, the sand, the organics and then you pressurize the water and send it through very fine membranes.

ROTT: And the result...

MACLAGGAN: Every two gallons of sea water that goes in, one gallon of high quality of drinking water comes out.

ROTT: When finished in early 2016, this will be the largest sea water desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, providing up to 50 million gallons of that fresh drinkable water every day.

MACLAGGAN: That's enough water for 112,000 households here in the region.

ROTT: And MacLaggan says, the best part is...

MACLAGGAN: It's drought proof. It's drought proof because it's not dependant on snow pack in the Sierras. It's not dependent on rainfall here in San Diego. You're getting water from the Pacific Ocean.

ROTT: The words drought proof carry a lot of weight in California. That snow pack in the Sierra Nevada he's talking about is still less than half of what it should be for this time of year. What little water there is is being fought over by farmers, environmentalists and cities, like nearby San Diego, which depends on it.

BOB YAMADA: San Diego currently imports about 70 percent of its water.

ROTT: Bob Yamada is a water resources manager at the San Diego County Water Authority. He says that's why they've agreed to buy water from the Carlsbad plant when it's finished, even though it costs twice as much as that imported water from northern California and the Colorado River. Expensive...

YAMADA: But it does provide you with the highest reliability.

ROTT: And Yamada says, people are willing to pay more for reliability. Desalination costs more because it takes a lot of energy to suck 100 million gallons of ocean water into a plant and pressurize it through little tubes. And that's where the opposition comes in.

RICK WILSON: Well, on a macro level, we just think that there are less expensive, less environmentally damaging ways to increase our water supply.

ROTT: Rick Wilson is with Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group that's opposed to Carlsbad Project every step of the way. One reason, he says, is that all of the energy used will contribute to global warming. More directly, the intake pipe for the plant, he says, will suck in sea life, killing marine animals.

WILSON: And there's also a concern in some cases about the discharge from these plants.

ROTT: The extra salty leftover water that's pumped back into the ocean. Carlsbad has met all of the state's requirements. Still, Wilson says, money would be better spent on conservation and water recycling efforts. Jeffrey Kightlinger is the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. They're the main water authority for about half of California's population. He says that they have invested in conservation and recycling and it has helped, but they still need more water to meet growing demand.

JEFFREY KIGHTLINGER: And we don't have time to rehash the same debates over and over and over again. We're going to have to start investing in some things for the future.

ROTT: Kightlinger says desalination helps, but it's not a cure-all. His agency gets about 30 percent of its water from Northern California.

KIGHTLINGER: To replace that supply would require a Carlsbad plant every four miles between L.A. and San Diego.

ROTT: That would be 25 plants in that little stretch. Statewide, there are only 17 desalination plants that are in some stage of planning on the California coast. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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