Published: May 15, 2015

    Is Desalination a Solution to California’s Drought?

    Faced with shrinking local water supplies related to the historic California drought, Santa Barbara officials are looking to the ocean for salvation. In hopes of reactivating a dormant seawater desalination plant built in 1992, the city is prepared to invest $40 million. Unfortunately, this proposition is fraught with concerns related to both cost and feasibility.

    What it Entails

    Called reverse osmosis (RO), desalination sounds simple enough. Water is forced through a semipermeable membrane that filters out salts and other inorganic impurities, allowing only salt-free water to pass. Unfortunately, the process demands considerable resources, including large amounts of energy and money. Desalinated water typically sells for between $1,000 and $2,500 per acre-foot, which only amounts to enough for two five-person U.S. households per year.

    Despite its drawbacks, desalination is on the rise. Since 2000, the number of functioning plants has tripled to 16,000 around the world, and that pace is expected to increase as technological advances continue. For instance, Carlsbad is currently building a desalination plant outfitted with state-of-the art commercial membranes and advanced pressure-recovery systems that will draw in 100 million gallons of Pacific Ocean water, yielding 54 million gallons of potable water each day. Still, the process remains expensive. According to estimates, the Carlsbad plant will cost an initial $1 billion to get up and running and then an additional $30 million annually, stemming from the 35 megawatts of yearly electricity needed to power production.

    A Last Resort

    Aware of the high cost associated with desalination, Santa Barbara officials are desperately in search of any alternatives. Unfortunately, if the city does opt to re-open its desalination plant, the cost will ultimately trickle down to residents. According to estimates, the energy-intensive process could raise the cost of the city’s water to about five times its current amount. Still, according to Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, although desalination is definitely a costly, imperfect option, having no water is a much worse proposition.