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July 11, 2005

UCSC desalination project to give cities tools they need to weigh pros and cons

By Jennifer McNulty

As California's population and economy grow, it's just a matter of time until cities are forced to seriously consider desalination to extend their water supplies.


Brent Haddad will direct the $2.6 million project.
Photo: r.r. jones

That's the prediction of water expert Brent Haddad, an associate professor of environmental studies at UCSC, who will direct a $2.6 million project to help communities assess the viability of desalination.

The project, which will encompass coastal and inland case studies, has attracted participants and funding from water agencies, environmentalists, consultants, academics, nongovernmental organizations, and a manufacturer of desalination equipment. The Department of Water Resources contributed $909,050 of Proposition 50 funds.

The initiative, the "Water Security, Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act of 2002" approved by voters in November 2002, included bonds to fund grants for the desalination of ocean or brackish waters.

"This project is a good example of how we can bring the university's resources to bear on problems of immediate and practical concern to California," said UCSC Chancellor Denice D. Denton.

The goal of the project is to develop a comprehensive planning tool that communities, water-planning agencies, and water providers can use to assess the costs and benefits of desalination relative to other options in their area. Currently, when communities consider potential desalination projects, they have no framework within which to evaluate the pros and cons, said Haddad. Desalination plants remove salt from ocean water, or brackish inland water, by forcing it through a series of membranes and filters.

"In some parts of the world, from Saudi Arabia to the island of Majorca, they depend on desalination," said Haddad. "With more than 7,500 plants operating worldwide, it is definitely a proven and reliable technology. But it is expensive, and each municipality has to weigh the environmental and economic costs and benefits."

Costs have come down over the past decade as technology has become more efficient, but desalination still runs about $500-$2,000 per acre foot of water (325,000 gallons), compared with about $250 per acre foot for water in urban Los Angeles, and $10 per acre foot paid to the federal government by farmers in the Sierra foothills, according to Haddad, the author of Rivers of Gold: Designing Markets to Allocate Water in California (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000).

"Desalination will matter in the next drought," emphasized Haddad. "That's when people will be willing to pay a lot of money for water, because businesses will be at risk. It will impact local economies, public health, and even fire protection in some areas."

A moderate to severe drought now would have even greater impacts than the droughts of 1977 and the early 1990s because the state's population and economy have grown so much since then, noted Haddad, an advocate of a "portfolio approach" to water supply management that reduces risk by tapping multiple sources. "Marin County and Santa Barbara County were very hard-hit by those droughts, and they'd be hard-pressed to manage today," he said. "We need a variety of water supplies in California."

Haddad's comprehensive analysis will link economic aspects of desalination with environmental impacts. Challenges include figuring out how to dispose of leftover salt and how to avoid inadvertently capturing fish in coastal water intakes. However, Haddad identified potential unrecognized environmental benefits of desalination, which could include:

• improved fish habitat due to reduced diversions from rivers, streams, and groundwater

• energy savings and less air pollution if the amount of water being pumped across the state is reduced

• greater protection of high-quality groundwater due to reduced pumping of aquifers

The two-year study will examine other potential social and economic benefits and costs, including the value desalination could offer in terms of drought relief and protection of agricultural lands by reducing municipal demands on water currently used for irrigation. Other factors include the economic impacts of alternative water supply scenarios; the risk-reducing value of a portfolio approach to water supply management; the pros and cons of changing the levels of interdependence between the water supply and power sectors; and the comparative risks of different levels of dependence on technology for water supply.

Participants will also examine the environmental justice aspects of water, working with advocates and organizations to integrate questions of "who pays for water?" and "who gets the best water?" into the analysis.

The framework will incorporate "no project" scenarios, as well as water conservation, reclamation, and reuse alternatives. Two case studies will be prepared, one for the Long Beach Water Department and one for the Inland Empire Utilities Agency; both will identify a full range of potential benefits and costs. In addition, participants hope to provide a preliminary analysis of a desalination project in Monterey County.

The project, entitled "A Comprehensive Economic and Environmental Framework to Fully Assess the Benefits and Costs of Desalination," begins this summer. Other participants include Michael Hanemann, Chancellor's Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley; Robert Wilkinson, who teaches environmental science at UC Santa Barbara; the Long Beach Water Department; the Inland Empire Utilities Agency; the Coachella Valley Water District; the San Diego County Water Authority; and the Monterey Coastal Division of the California-American Water Company. Planning and regulatory agencies include the California Regional Water Quality Control Board of San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

Nongovernmental organizations include the California League of Conservation Voters, the Surfrider Foundation, the WateReuse Foundation, and Residents of Pico Rivera for Environmental Justice. Also participating will be Robert Raucher and Elizabeth Strange of Stratus Consulting; Edward Means and Dennis Dickenson of McGuire Environmental; and Poseidon Resources, which manufactures desalination equipment.

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