Desalination or conservation?

When you talk water with folks it boils down to a choice between Thomas Edison and Al Gore. You want whiz-bang machinery or do-gooder conservation?

I’m speaking of ocean desalination plants – the big machine solution to dwindling water supplies. But these can be seen as anti-conservation with slogans like: “If you build it, you can let the faucet run while shaving.”

That attitude reminds me of my brother-in-law who like myself is taking a “statin” to lower bad cholesterol levels in his blood. In so many words, he said it was a license to eat bacon cheeseburgers.

But with desalination and cholesterol-reducing drugs, there is always payback. People on Lipitor can still get fat from eating fatty foods. Counties building desal plants will pass the costs along as higher water rates.

What’s a semi-arid region like Southern California to do?

If you absorb serious news (newspapers, news magazines, NPR) you may have noticed a plethora of stories about new desalination plants. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Australia’s five largest cities will spend $13.2 billion on plants that suck in sea water and spit out fresh water. Of course, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to squeeze the salt out of water. In Australia, that energy comes from non-environmentally friendly fuels like coal.

On NPR this week, I learned how London is low on water so it has built itself a desalination plant. Apparently the Thames has salty water. In fact, Spain has built several desal plants, including some used by agriculture.
The next logical question is, why isn’t the U.S. looking to the ocean to augment its water supply?

I put that one to the best water expert I know, Adan Ortega, the director of Water Conservation Partners, Inc. out of Santa Ana. Ortega has worked on water issues his whole life with agencies such as the Metropolitan Water District, the largest water wholesaler in the world.

He told the CEO of a Spanish desal company their model would not fly in the U.S. because U.S. ratepayers are not accustomed to paying European prices, not for water and also not for gasoline.

Water is still cheap in this country. Attempts to raise rates are met with hostility, as happened in Sierra Madre this week.

Metropolitan is contemplating whether to heavily subsidize a massive desal plant planned for Carlsbad, near San Diego, whose price tag has gone from $270 million to $530 million. I don’t want my water dollars paying for a private company to make money on water.

Ortega says desalination is not cost-effective, not when there are so many cheaper alternatives. One of those we should pursue is water recycling. Sewage water is already treated partially before being sent down the San Gabriel River. It makes sense to finish the job and use it for

groundwater recharge as well as median and parks landscaping.

As to desalination, Ortega says: “What good does it do us to pour more water into the system when we are wasting half our water?”

A state water report says we could save 3 million acre-feet of water a year by simply watering our lawns less. And not so they go brown, just not watering the sidewalks and driveways.

I’ve noticed that more people in my town of Temple City are taking out front lawns and replacing them with decomposed granite, pebbles, garlic plants and other drought-tolerant species. The concept, known as xeriscape (see for a list of plants) is suddenly becoming sexy.

Ortega, who himself replaced his front lawn with low-water use plants, said the idea is “romantic” and has made the covers of stylish home and garden magazines.

The trick is aligning with Southern California seasons: planting in the fall and seeing vegetative flourishes in the winter and spring. We have to shed our East Coast bias.

Xeriscape done right is prettier and much cheaper than giant machines sucking water out of the Pacific Ocean.

This entry was posted in environment, land use, Pasadena by Steve Scauzillo. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steve Scauzillo

I love journalism. I've been working in journalism for 32 years. I love communicating and now, that includes writing about environment, transportation and the foothill/Puente Hills communities of Hacienda Heights, Rowland Heights, Walnut and Diamond Bar. I write a couple of columns, one on fridays in Opinion and the other, The Green Way, in the main news section. Send me ideas for stories. Or comments. I was opinion page editor for 12 years so I enjoy a good opinion now and then.

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