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CA San Luis Reservoir, depleted, June 1, 2021. (Photo: Katy Grimes for California Globe)

Dams and Desalination – California Needs Both

We cannot let the ideals of ecological perfection be an excuse to impoverish ourselves

By Edward Ring, June 7, 2021 2:42 am

When Californians can take showers, without flow restrictors, for as long as they want, and when Californians can have lawns again instead of rocks and cacti in their front yards, water infrastructure in California will once again be adequate.

When California’s farmers can get enough water to grow food, instead of watching their suddenly useless holdings of dead orchards and parched furrows get sold for next to nothing to corporate speculators and subsidized solar farm developers, water infrastructure in California will once again be adequate.

One of the difficulties in forming a coalition powerful enough to stand up to the corporate environmentalist lobby in California is the perception, widely shared among the more activist farming lobby, that desalination is more expensive than dams.

That’s not true. It depends on the desalination, and even more so, it depends on the dam.

As a baseline, consider the cost of desalination in California’s lone large scale operating plant in Carlsbad north of San Diego. The total project costs for this plant, including the related pipes to convey the desalinated water to storage reservoirs, was just over $1.0 billion. At a capacity to produce 56,000 acre feet per year, the construction cost per acre foot of annual capacity comes in just over $17,000.

When it comes to the price of desalinated water, payments on the bond that financed the construction costs form the overwhelming share of the cost per acre foot.

For example, California’s second major desalination project, the proposed plant in Huntington Beach, will have a total project cost of $1.3 billion. Similar to Carlsbad, this plant will produce 50 million gallons of fresh water per day. A 20 year bond paying 7 percent will require annual payments of $122 million. That payment, applied to the hundred cubic foot increments, or CCF, that typically appear on a consumer’s water bill to measure their consumption, comes up to $5.03. By contrast, the cost per CCF for the desalination plant’s operating expenses is only $0.41, and the price per CCF for a desalination plant’s electricity consumption (at $0.10 per kilowatt-hour) is only $1.08. Initial construction costs, comprising 77 percent of the price of desalinated water, are the only reason desalination is considered expensive.

Compare this to the price of water from reservoirs, keeping in mind that paying off the construction costs for the dams are also the biggest variable in determining how much consumers have to pay for that water. With dams, unlike desalination plants, two factors come into play: the storage capacity, and the annual yield. With desalination plants the yield is up to the managers. Run the plant, out comes fresh water. With dams, how much water is released from the reservoir to downstream consumers in any given year depends on rainfall.

For this reason, the average annual yield of the reservoir is the most accurate way to measure its cost effectiveness. And this amount can vary widely. One of California’s biggest proposed new projects is the Sites Reservoir. It would be situated in a valley west of the Sacramento River, north of the Delta. As an off-stream reservoir, it would have water pumped into it when storm runoff is causing flooding. A twin to the already existing San Luis Reservoir, located west of the California Aqueduct south of the Delta, the Sites would have a capacity to store 2.0 million acre feet. But its yield is estimated at 500,000 acre feet per year.

In the case of the Sites Reservoir, this compares favorably to desalination. The Sites project is estimated to cost $5.0 billion, so the construction cost per acre foot of annual capacity comes in at $10,000, better than desalination at $17,000.

On the other hand, the case of the proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir is not so clear. The estimated cost for this dam is $2.6 billion and the planned storage capacity is 1.3 million acre feet. So far so good. But while estimates vary, the most optimistic projected average annual yield is around 100,000 acre feet per year. This equates to a construction cost of $26,000 per acre foot of annual capacity, considerably worse than desalination.

Does the fact that desalination yields a better return on construction costs than Temperance Flat mean that the Temperance Flat Reservoir project should be abandoned? Not necessarily. Back in 2017, during record rains, the San Joaquin River flooded, and that water – desperately needed by San Joaquin Valley farmers – could have still been in that reservoir and available for use today. The advantage of big surface storage reservoirs is not their return on capital investment, it’s that they can prevent flooding in wet years, and hold massive quantities of water in reserve for dry years.

Similarly, foes of desalination point to the more cost-effective Sites Reservoir proposal as evidence that desalination is too expensive. But the productivity of desalination is impervious to droughts; the water just keeps coming, year after year, no matter what. And the electricity required to run desalination, while significant, is no greater than the electricity currently used by a series of massive pumping stations necessary to transport water from north to south, over the mountains, and into the Los Angeles Basin – over 2.5 million acre feet per year.

Infrastructure development in California has been paralyzed by litigation and legislation. The result is a self-imposed scarcity of water that can be solved by an all-of-the-above strategy to develop new dams and desalination plants. Civilization requires a footprint, a plain fact that wasn’t lost on previous generations. We’ve learned how to mitigate the worst impact of new infrastructure, but cannot let the ideals of ecological perfection be an excuse to impoverish ourselves.

General obligation bonds to defray the cost to farmers and residents are something the people of California might accept. Then if the rains don’t come for years on end, Californians will still be able to purchase food grown in-state, and enjoy more of the normal amenities of life – a long hot shower. A healthy lawn.

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18 thoughts on “Dams and Desalination – California Needs Both

  1. “Infrastructure development in California has been paralyzed by litigation and legislation.”

    That says it all.

    Add to that the already existing infrastructure that is crumbling to pieces due to lack of maintenance*, the decommissioning of local/close-in power plants in favour of tenuous connections to generators in other states, the intermittent nature of solar and wind power, and you have a formula for infrastructure collapse.

    Add to that mix the exodus of productive classes from the state, leaving only the disconnected and entitled elite, the ill-educated functionaries, the cronies, the rent seekers and the transfer-payment dependent, and you have a scenario straight out of Tainter’s classic The Collapse of Complex Societies.**

    All it takes is a good kick in the form of a Black Swan Event to bring the whole thing down.

    Earthquake anybody?

    It’s still reversible, but that would require a major 180 not just in administrations, but in the short sighted, overly complex, systemic sloth and incompetence of government itself. Likewise a change in the unrealistic, parasitical expectations of a too numerous impoverished underclass of whatever ethnicity.

    Just a thought.


    * Maintenance is hard; virtue signaling and chasing after the next new shiny thing is easy. The former displays a level of adult maturity and foresight; the latter does not.

    **Read it here for free:


    1. We need to look at what works. The most successful water infrastructure project in modern California was the Diamond Valley Lake project including the inland feeder. Metropolitan made it happen. Studying how they succeeded is the key to going forward.

  2. Ed forgets about water wheeling fees. This is where the term “wheeler dealer” actually comes from. If the intended customer of Poseidon is only the Muni Water District of OC, then it’s a null issue, but if water is to be delivered to Santa Ana, Fullerton, Long Beach, or even San Diego, they’re going to have to use Metropolitan’s regional delivery system. I totally agree with Ed that we need to develop water resources – and (is it just me?) that Ed is totally in agreement with (gasp) Jerry Brown! What’s deplorable is the state has had so many water bonds and it all seems to go to projects that move dirt around and build swamps. I just re-read Stephen Erie’s “Beyond Chinatown,” and it was really worthwhile, especially paired with Mark Arax’s “The Dreamt Land” and even the “California Water Atlas.”

    Desalination gobbles electricity, but I could see an arrangement where it is a way to alleviate California’s “duck curve.” Energy was my first question when Metropolitan had a presentation on their recycling facility in Carson – and the answer was they were developing biomass processing technology for the treatment facility. The real advantage (nobody talks about) is it is a way for California to stake a claim to technology leadership and to pipeline the development/training of experts. Californian engineers have built Space Shuttles and Nuclear Reactors and Semiconductors and all sorts of cool technology, and water technology should be part of the mix.

    Quick question: is Ed Ring getting paid any P/R fees perhaps by Poseidon Water? It would help to have a disclosure.

    1. No, Tom Busse – Edward Ring is not getting any fees of any kind from Poseidon Water. He is a proponent of desalination, period. Who the players are, how funding is secured, and how the contracts are structured, are all very important variables, but they are issues to be worked out after there is a general consensus that desalination is an essential part of securing a resilient, diverse and abundant supply of water for all Californians.

  3. The maximum use of dams could serve two purposes and would be the optimum approach to storing and providing fresh water. The first purpose is, of course, providing the storage and availability of fresh water. The important second purpose is the generation of hydroelectric power. Each dam should include hydroelectric generation capability to convert the gravitational energy provided by nature in depositing rain and snow at higher elevations into electrical energy. The advantage of the dam approach, relative to desalination, is not only the lower cost of priding fresh water but also provision of the significant electrical power needed to pump the water to the end users. The net cost per acre foot of fresh water should be considerably lower for the dam approach and could even add electrical power to our grid for other uses.

    1. If you read the article you will see that desalination can be a cheaper source of fresh water than some dams, depending on the projected annual average yield of the dam. That was the point of the analysis, to compare the going rate for desalination to dam construction. The proposed Sites project is more cost effective than desalination, but the proposed Temperance Flat project is not. That doesn’t mean we don’t need Temperance Flat, it will store water from wet years and that will be a priceless benefit during dry years. And of course dams provide electric power and can also be used for pump storage to store renewable electricity. But the costs of desalination are overstated, and that is a perception that must be challenged. Particularly since desalination is competitive in some scenarios despite California’s regulations making it far more expensive here than it is anywhere else in the world.

    2. Wait… Ed’s using LOGIC…

      That won’t fly in California legislature, where only emotion and quid pro quo rules the world..

  4. It’s great to see the author responding to comments! I’m with you on keeping CA agriculture on an even keel, and especially on maintaining stable economic conditions for growers and a steady food supply. However I don’t understand why taking showers without flow restrictors and having green lawns in desert locations are necessary for water infrastructure to be “adequate.” Lawns everywhere and daily long showers don’t improve economic or public health. Surely it’s much cheaper to learn an appreciation for rock and cactus landscaping than to pay for desalination to grow more lawns, no? Rock and cactus landscaping boosts economic activity just as much as “English” style landscaping in an environment and climate that are anything but English.

    1. Concerned Citizen: To answer your question, to “learn an appreciation for rock and cactus landscaping” is not something anyone should have to do. And just because something “boosts economic activity” doesn’t mean it’s desirable. There is an aesthetic value and a quality of life value to lawns and long showers. If someone wants to have them, an economic solution would be to design moderate, affordable, tiered pricing for residential water, perhaps a 10 percent surcharge for “overuse,” followed by a 20 percent surcharge, but nothing beyond that. Economically, this model would allow “water wasters” to fund – through their premium payments for extra water use – investment in more water infrastructure which would increase the overall water supply. The coercive route via defacto rationing, sold to consumers via rhetoric that includes veiled slurs about “English” landscaping, is a poor alternative.

      You can’t make an economic case for most of the beautiful things that humanity has created. What is the economic value of a symphony orchestra, or a Formula One race car? Wouldn’t we survive without them? Why is a long shower or a nice lawn any more wasteful than a concert hall or a stadium? We build infrastructure, including water infrastructure, to enable people to have a finer quality of life. We don’t have to micromanage how they use it. Often we might consider their choices frivolous. And perhaps they would say the same thing about our choices.

      If people want to grow lawns so their children have somewhere to play, or just because they like to look at them, let them. You ought to talk with people who live next to schools where the fields have been replaced by artificial turf. What a perfect illustration that is of corruption masquerading as environmentalism. These expensive, toxic rugs do nothing but enrich the venders that sell them. They cause injuries to athletes, and more to the point, they raise the ambient summer temperatures by about 10 degrees. Ditto for all these rock gardens. I’ll take lawn.

      1. I’m not disagreeing on what you wrote about desalination. I’m disagreeing about the idea that the State should target green lawns everywhere and long showers as necessary for an “adequate” infrastructure. I’m also not arguing that people shouldn’t have lawns for their children to play on. Where I disagree is that making that the standard for “adequate infrastructure” sets the bar very high for a particular kind of lifestyle. It’s fine if people want to pay for for their lawns, especially if tiered cost systems distribute fees in line with total costs as you suggest. We get into trouble when a narrow view of costs skews infrastructure toward particular expectations that are not in line with the climate California actually has and the natural resources already here for recreation.
        You asked about the economic value of a symphony orchestra,… that ought to be obvious, because symphony performances, athletic mega-events in stadiums and Formula One racing (something we don’t have in CA any more…) clearly increase economic activity. None of these consume anywhere near as much water as the aggregate thirst of entire subdivisions full of unnaturally green front lawns that children never play on.
        As for rock gardens and temperatures, a well-designed landscape doesn’t need a big, water-hungry lawn to manage temperatures. California has plenty of native grasses, shrubs and trees that provide shade, stabilize local environments and soils effectively. And regarding expensive and toxic chemicals,… that’s a pretty good description of the “lawn industry.”
        Let’s just not lose sight of our apparent agreement that water is critical for CA’s economy, especially in the Ag sector. It’s pretty clear that the state needs leadership willing to step up, sharpen some pencils and develop comprehensive infrastructure planning.

  5. The water shortage really started when CA. Ran out of ground water in the valley. If we use desalination, what do we do with all the brine?

    1. I was thinking the same thing. I saw a video about a plant in some other part of the world, and they put the brine back in the ocean. Apparently they did studies and found it not harmful to the area. Yeeeaahh sure. But maybe some if it can be directed to the various industries that use salt. Not sure how much of a dent that would make in the massive quantities produced with desal. Maybe it will come to shipping it all out to sea and spreading it evenly over a vast area. You know, let the next generations deal with that problem.

      1. Modern desalination plants release the brine, which is non-toxic and only has about double the salt concentration of seawater, under pressure through a pipe on the seabed that extends miles offshore. In California, this discharge is picked up and further disbursed by the California Current, which in all the world’s oceans is only second in volume only to the legendary Gulf Stream. The idea that brine from desalination will despoil ocean ecosystems is a myth, spread by opponents for political gain, and is not based on a shred of evidence.

        1. I hope you are right Edward! Can’t imagine when everyone starts doing desal plants, including other countries, it all adds up to an imbalance. High salt in an aquarium is a disaster but maybe the aquatic life in the ocean will adapt??!! I will get back to you in 20 years Edward and check if your theories on desal and see if the cumulative effect is “non-toxic.”. I hope you are right because Americans don’t change their ways if it is an inconvenience.

  6. Reading about the Carlsbad facility in their brochure, “based on current electricity cost estimates, the Water Purchase Agreement sets the price of water at $2,513 to $2,796 per acre-foot in fiscal year 2020”. That dwarfs the value of any crop. An acre of almonds needs 3-4 acre feet of water, and will yield maybe $4,500.

    I just don’t see the math. Desalination seems ideal for ensuring the water stability of coastal population centers and ill-suited for agriculture.

  7. We are a long way from ecological perfection and have been since Euro-Americans began systematically subjugating the North American Indians and decimating the land they held so sacred.

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