Desalination Plants vs. Bullet Trains and Pensions

Current policy solutions enacted to address California’s water crisis provide an object lesson in how corruption masquerading as virtue is impoverishing the general population to enrich a handful of elites. Instead of building freeways, expanding ports, restoring bridges and aqueducts, and constructing dams, desalination plants, and power stations, California’s taxpayers are pouring tens of billions each year into public sector pension funds – who invest 90% of the proceeds out-of-state, and the one big construction project on the table, the $100B+ “bullet train,” fails to justify itself under virtually any credible cost/benefit analysis. Why?

The reason is because infrastructure, genuinely conceived in the public interest, lowers the cost of living. This in-turn causes artificially inflated asset values to fall, imperiling the solvency of pension funds – something that would force them to reduce benefits. Beneficial infrastructure is also a threat to crony capitalists who don’t want a business climate that attracts competitors. Affordable land, energy, and water encourage economic growth. Crony capitalists and public sector unions alike hide behind environmentalists, who oppose growth and development, all of it, everywhere – because no new developments, anywhere, suits their monopolistic interests. No wonder the only infrastructure vision still alive in California, the “bullet train,” is nothing more than a gigantic, tragic farce.

Urban Water Consumption is a Small Fraction of Total Water Use

Returning to the topic of water, a basic examination of the facts reveals the current drought to be a problem that could be easily solved, if it weren’t for powerful special interests who don’t want it to be solved, ever. Here’s a rough summary of California’s annual water use. In a dry year, around 150 million acre feet (MAF) fall onto California’s watersheds in the form of rain or snow, in a wet year, we get about twice that much. [1] Most of that water either evaporates, percolates, or eventually runs into the ocean. In terms of net water withdrawals, each year around 31 MAF are diverted for the environment, such as to guarantee fresh water inflow into the delta, 27 MAF are diverted for agriculture, and 6.6 MAF are diverted for urban use. [2] Of the 6.6 MAF that is diverted for urban use, 3.7 MAF is used by residential customers, and the rest is used by industrial, commercial and government customers. [3]

Put another way, we divert 65 million acre feet of water each year in California for environmental, agricultural and urban uses, and a 25% reduction in water usage by residential customers will save exactly 0.9 million acre feet – or 1.4% of our total statewide water usage. One good storm easily dumps ten times as much water onto California’s watersheds as we’ll save via a 25% reduction in annual residential water consumption.

California’s politicians can impose utterly draconian curbs on residential water consumption, and it won’t make more than a small dent in the problem. We have to increase the supply of water.

Desalination is An Affordable Option

One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 627,000 cubic meters of water per day. [4] That means that five of these plants, costing $2.5 billion to build, could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. And since these modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water, it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. [5] Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one MAF of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart. [6]

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 MAF. [7] Desalination plants with capacity to supply 100% of the urban water required by Los Angeles and Orange counties would cost under $10 billion, and require 2.5 gigawatts of electric power. These power stations could also be built for under $10 billion. [8]

Imagine that. For $20 billion in capital investment we could provide 100% of the fresh water required by nearly all of Southern California’s urban water users. For around $50 billion, 100% of California’s urban water requirements, statewide, could be financed – the desalination plants and the power stations.

California’s taxpayers are currently condemned to shell out at least 500 billion dollars over the next 20-30 years so a train that hardly anyone will ride will careen through expropriated land, and pension funds can invest 90% of their assets out-of-state so public sector employees can retire 10-15 years early with pensions that are 3-5 times greater than Social Security. For less than one-tenth of that amount, we can solve our water crisis by investing in desalination. Why not, environmentalists? We’re willing to carpet the land with solar farms, exterminate raptors with the blades of wind turbines, and incinerate the rain forests to grow palm oil – all financed by selling carbon emission permits. Why not disburse brine offshore, where the California current will disburse it far more efficiently than any desalination plant situated on the Mediterranean Sea?

Another way to solve California’s urban water crisis is to recycle 100% of indoor water. Quaternary treatment, where water from sewage is purified and sent back upstream for reuse, is another proven technology already in limited use throughout California. In theory, not one drop of indoor water use can be wasted, since all of it can be reused.

And, of course, imagine how quickly California’s water crisis could be solved if farmers could sell their water allotments to urban water agencies. As it is, myriad restrictions largely prevent them from exercising this option, even though many of them could profitably sell their water allotments and make more than they make farming the crop. Do we really need to grow rice in the Mojave desert to export to China?

Environmentalists alone are not powerful enough to stop Californians from acting to increase water supply. Powerful government unions, pension funds, and anti-competitive corporate interests all have a stake in perpetuating artificial scarcity and authoritarian remedies. It suits them because it consolidates their power, and ensures they get a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.


(1) Total Precipitation in California during wet, average, and dry years:
California Water Supply and Demand: Technical Report
Stockholm Environment Institute
Table 2: Baseline Annual Values by Water Year Type and Climate-Scenario (MAF)

(2) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005

(3) California urban water use by sector:
California Dept. of Water Resources
2010 Urban Water Management Plan Data – Tables
Download spreadsheet “DOST Tables 3, 4, 5, 6, 7a, 7b, & 7c: Water Deliveries – Actual and Projected, 2005-2035”

(4) Cost of modern reverse osmosis desalination plant:
Technology Review
Megascale Desalination: The world’s largest and cheapest reverse-osmosis desalination plant is up and running in Israel.

(5) Energy required to desalinate seawater using reverse osmosis technology:
Encyclopedia of Desalination and Water Resources
“Energy Requirements of Desalination Process”
Table 1. Energy requirements of four industrial desalination processes.

(6) part one – Tehachapi lift of 1,926 feet:
Wikipedia, California Aqueduct

(6) part two – energy required to lift water:
University of California, Energy Required to Lift Water
Table 1. The Amount of Energy in Kilowatt-Hours (kWh) Required to Lift One Acre-foot of Water (325,851 gallons) One Foot of Elevation

(7) California water use by sector:
California Water Today
Public Policy Institute of California
Table 2.2, Average annual water use by sector, 1998–2005, ref. “South Coast”

(8) The cost to construct a modern natural gas power plant:
U.S. Energy Information Administration, Capital Costs for Electricity Plants
Download Table 1, “Updated Estimates of Power Plant Capital and Operating Costs” (ref. Natural Gas – the most modern and expensive version)

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14 replies
  1. Avatar
    Gary Bierend says:

    Great article, only comment would be that you refer to it as “the $100M+ “bullet train,””. While the + sign makes it technically accurate, wouldn’t “$100B+ “bullet train”” be more accurate?

    I really like the water usage breakdown also.

  2. Avatar
    Mark says:

    I’m new to the politics of desalination. I’m having a hard time believing that there is serious resistance to desalination from environmentalists. Can you give me any evidence of this resistance? thanks!

  3. Ed Ring
    Ed Ring says:

    Mark – Environmentalists object to building desalination plants because the intake valves kill fish and the residual water has high concentrations of salt.

    The large desalination plant under construction at Carlsbad, California endured six years of getting government permits and no fewer than twelve environmental lawsuits.

    The intake valve technology today can mitigate most fish kills, and the California Current has the highest volume of seawater flow in the world with the exception of the Gulf Stream. There are desalination plants in the Mediterranean Sea where almost no natural current is present to disburse the brine, yet they have come up with acceptable mitigation strategies.

    If you review the boards of directors of many powerful nonprofits you will find a lot of trial lawyers. It is a profitable business for them to tie our economy up in knots.

  4. Avatar
    Dane says:

    I haven’t looked into the volume of brine to disperse , but people use sea salt . Would it be possible to build evaporation ponds for it , collect the salt and make a profit from that also ?

  5. Avatar
    john m. moore says:

    Here in the Monterey Bay Area, Agencies and Ca-Am have been involved in building a 7800 acre-ft. per year de-sal facility. Cal-Am will own the plant, so the more it costs, the more it will make.
    This project began in 2009. At this point it is stalled in the PUC. There were three competing projects by groups, including Cal-Am, that had/have no experience building or managing a desal facility. In my 53 years as a lawyer, it is easily the worst capital project immaginable.
    The San Diego plant is owned by Poseiden, a publicly held co. that sells the water to several different water districts for about $2100 per acre-ft. The Cal-Am unit is already estimating a cost of $6,000 per acre-ft.
    My point: I agree with Ed’s premise, but like pension and union reform, Ca. politics is so corrupt that it fails at all levels.
    As for the train to no-where, only Gov. Brown can get get away with that crap. He gave us the present monopoly-unions and the high taxes that requires. Gray Davis, his first pardons secretary, gave us 3%@50 for almost all govt. workers, based on classic fraud principles(think Enron, AIG etc.).
    It is not about govt. unions, or no govt. unions; it is about legislative bodies regaining control from govt. unions and staff and exercizing that control to save govt. agencies in Ca., including the state. Step One: freeze all govt salaries until the pension debt is minimal and stop blowing money on the silly train. To achieve the goal, will require much tougher pension reformers than now exist. Recently in Marin and Sonoma, grand juries found that through Enron like fraud, each county had illegally enacted about $500M each in pension increases at a time when both counties were in budget deficits: pension reformers response? a plea for transparency! Really? The members of the boards of supervisors are key beneficiaries of the pension crimes(Marin-$54,000 this year for each Supe for pensions). They must be laughing!
    Pension reformers, get off your butts; raise big time money in places like Marin, Sonoma, San Rafael, San Jose, Pacific Grove, etc. and elect legislative members that will take back control of the Agency.
    And if the Agency goes bankrupt, modify pensions. Stockton represented to the BK court that its pension contribution would be $23M. In fact, it is over $47M. The lying just goes on and on.


  6. Avatar
    Ten brooks says:

    I am an environmentalist who also holds an MBA and has worked in both environmental and business fields. I find it naive how some of those who are mostly economically oriented ignore, distort, and try to blame most of California’s problems on environmentalists. I do agree that the urban component of water use is far less than agricultural use, but that doesn’t let city users of copious amounts of water not naturally existing there off the hook. The author also points out some useful environmentalist favored ideas for reusing water more efficiently, and better selection of crops, which does provide some balance. So there are some good ideas here, but others that may need a closer look.

    First, my point of view on some of the issues addressed here, to be clear. I favor urban mass transit and some intercity rail if efficient enough, and have worked in this field. I oppose the high speed rail as proposed in California, and voted against it. In my experience, the cost of construction and operation will both far exceed the projections on this current project. I favor high speed rail in concept if the cost is more efficient, and not paid so highly from tax or bond funds. I think the hyperloop being tested is worth keeping and eye on as an alternative; while it may seem pie in the sky now, the possibilities are impressive if feasible. Global warming/climate change is real, people. I understand why the deniers fight it; it may be quite expensive to turn around. But burning ever more fossil fuels by expanding highways or coal plants will not help.

    Desalination I approach tentatively, favoring the concept but again warning about the devils in the details. Not only the environmental concerns, but it is a large consumer of energy to produce fresh water as well. There are approaches to try to address these – but it may be better to roll it out slowly and learn from trial and error. Early plants have been mothballed due to inefficient costs, and may be again if the rains return.

    Greater agricultural water conservation and better selection of water sparing crops is a logical approach that is far from realized in this state. Instead of emphasizing these, agriculture seems to go for the highest value crops, assuming the water will come, and relies on highly subsidized rates from historical water rights. Another example of how the “free” market doesn’t always properly consider externalities. Certainly there has been some degree of agricultural water conservation, but not to the full extent possible or useful. The twin Delta tunnels is a huge expensive boondoggle, which will harm the Delta waters, provide no additional water, and encourage farms to continue with inefficient production. I would even favor using some of the money that would otherwise be allocated to these tunnels to provide free water conserving equipment and techniques to agriculture, provided they also do their part in adopting less water intensive crops.

    Many economists have little understanding of the importance of healthy ecosystems to both living things and economic health. They often mock it in terms of fish vs. people. This is ignorant and shortsighted. Healthy river and Delta flows are important to fishing industries, vegetation, water drinkability in northern California, and ecological balance overall. Damming, tunneling, and sending it south to the detriment of all this, with no change in behavior from the southern agricultural and urban locations in the naturally desert south, are not productive.

  7. Avatar
    Robert Brandon says:

    A new hardback book is available on how Israel solved its water availability issues over the life of the country. Israel is water sufficient and water secure, all accomplished in a land with 60% desert and even more semi-arid. The book may offer some ideas for California.

  8. Avatar
    Rex the Wonder Dog! says:

    Only when the entire caboodle goes bust is when the pubic unions and their puppets in the legislature will come to the table.

  9. Avatar
    john m. moore says:

    I respect your point of view, but disagree with it. I lived thru the toughest depression years and fear that with double the population, if the whole caboodle goes bust there will be poverty and chaos to an extent that will be historic. We owe it to our children and their children to try and avoid that result.
    Is it really that tough? Take Marin and Sonoma cos. with about 500,000 people in each county. At $10 a head, that is $5M, but 30% are against pension reform, so reformers should ask for an average of $15 per reformer and its family. Sure, it will require paid leaders and administrators. Some reformers will pay thousands, so the goal is $5M. That money would be used to elect a majority of reformers to the board of supervisors all of whom intend to comply with the collective bargaining law and then freeze salaries until pension debt is minimal. I choose those two counties because both are so far under water in pension debt that reforms going forward will not help. It looks like the stock market will contribute a substantial blow to pension plans-so all the contribution increases and service decimations are/were for naught. The Marin county counsel makes $450,000 a year. He was Co. Counsel for Sonoma co. when it adopted illegal pension increases(90% at some age for all employees). We must act. The present “unions rule” system is upside down.

  10. Avatar
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Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Political Droughts (California) | Religio-Political Talk (RPT) says:

    […] unlimited supply of the wet stuff, and lies close to the state’s most densely populated areas. Essentially the state could build enough desalinization facilities, and the energy plants to run them, for less money […]

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