Debbie Cook is the former Mayor of Huntington Beach, Board President of Post Carbon Institute, and board member of ASPO-USA. This article originally appeared in The Oil Drum.

by Debbie Cook

The next worst idea to turning tar sands into synthetic crude is turning ocean water into municipal drinking water. Sounds great until you zoom in on the environmental costs and energetic consequences. It may be technically feasible, but in the end it is unsustainable and will be just one more stranded asset.

In 2003, I was one of two elected officials invited to serve on the California Desalination Task Force. The task force was the result of Assembly Bill 2717 (Hertzberg), authorizing the Department of Water Resources to study desalination facilities and “report on potential opportunities and impediments...”

For nearly a year, an unwieldy group of individuals representing a multitude of agencies, industry, and environmental organizations convened around the state to study and prepare a report with their recommendations. As you can imagine, the membership was largely divided into two camps—those with a horse in the race and those without.

The Task Force provided me with the opportunity to learn about this emerging technology but more importantly, to learn about the relationship between water and energy in California. Within a few years my interest in water had blossomed into an obsession with our energy future and peak oil. It is my knowledge of our energy and resource constraints that leads me to reject ocean desalination as the water of our future.


reverse osmosis membranes
Figure 1: reverse osmosis membranes


The Water/Energy Nexus

Make no mistake, California has a serious water crisis. But it cannot be addressed in isolation of our energy crisis. The problem was summed up perfectly in a 2005 California Energy Commission (CEC) presentation title: “There is no electricity crisis in California the water agencies can’t solve—or make worse.”

Water is energy. According to the CEC, 10% of all electricity production in California is consumed in moving water around the state; another 9% for treating, disposing, pumping, heating, cooling, and pressurizing water.

Energy demand is at its highest July 1 to September 15. The hottest days of the year also coincide with the highest water demand. Maintaining adequate electricity reserves is becoming a challenge in California. According to California’s Energy Action Plan, “Because natural gas is becoming more expensive… reducing consumption of electricity and diversifying electricity generation resources are significant elements of plans to reduce natural gas demand...” There is no more energy intensive water source than ocean desalination.


Electricity consumption
Figure 2: Electricity consumption of various California water sources


Power plants require water for cooling. Along the California coast, almost half of our existing electricity generation facilities utilize once-through cooling technology resulting in the intake of 17 billion gallons per day of water. This results in the impingement and entrainment of millions of marine organisms. While dry cooling can reduce the impacts on the marine environment, conversion is expensive, controversial, and limits a desalination proponent’s plans for bootstrapping onto an existing intake/outfall pipe.

The Long Beach Water Department has been operating a demonstration desalination project for many years experimenting with a more responsible under ocean floor seawater intake and discharge. Long Beach has pledged, “not to pursue seawater desalination unless our research efforts determine it can be done cost-effectively, with little or no environmental impact.”

A Mirage in the Desert

The teaser horse in California’s ocean desalination race is a private water company called Poseidon Resources. They and their lobbyists have spent the last 10 years wooing water boards, legislators, and consumers into believing technology could keep California’s growing population satiated.

With the complicity of numerous water agencies, Poseidon has been largely successful. Most Southern Californians have been convinced that ocean desalination is a good thing—a new drought-proof source of water in a state with diminishing resources. Many environmentalists believe that this new water will be a surrogate for water withdrawals from endangered rivers and streams in Northern California. Residents have been told that the projects will be constructed at no cost to the taxpayer and will produce water that is comparably priced to imported water. Unfortunately the claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.

All Politics is Local

The regulatory hurdles to ocean desalination are daunting. The Poseidon adventure in California spans more than a decade beginning with a proposed project in Carlsbad California—a project that is still in the permitting process (despite their website’s claims to the contrary).

By comparison to Huntington Beach, their Carlsbad proposal was an easy sell. San Diego imports almost all of its water from the Metropolitan Water District at a price close to $800 per acre foot (AF). In San Diego, water independence is at least as motivating as energy independence is to most Americans—and about as achievable.

In 2002 Poseidon filed an application with the City of Huntington Beach for a 50 million gallon/day project that would utilize existing intake and outfall pipelines belonging to AES, a global power company with generation and distribution businesses. Surrounding AES in the Southeast area of the city is a hodge-podge of land uses including large gas-oil tanks, a wetland, a wildlife care facility, a sanitation district, a mobile home park, a waste dump-site, and hundreds of cranky homeowners who believe the area is an industrial dumping ground. In other words, Poseidon chose to become part of a long history of distrust between the industrial users, the city, and the residents. While Huntington Beach does not have interest in this new water source, it will be sharing the costs of a new water tank that had already been approved for the area.

As a member of the Orange County Water District, Huntington Beach meets most of its water needs from a well-managed aquifer, with only 25% of its water imported from MWD at roughly $580/AF. In fact, to augment its water supply, OCWD embarked on its own desalination project using effluent from its next door neighbor the Orange County Sanitation District. This partnership helped OCSD avoid construction of another outfall pipe and provided OCWD with a less energy intensive process. Granted, water costs are sure to go higher for all Californians as we struggle with a warming climate and growing population, but energy costs will rise right along water.


AES 450 MW natural gas power plant
Figure 3: AES 450 MW natural gas power plant, Huntington Beach, CA


In 2006, despite years of public protest, Poseidon won city approval and moved on to wrangling with other regulators and legal challengers. They also continue to seek a public partner so that they will be eligible for subsidies from the Metropolitan Water District.

Like corn ethanol, ocean desalination would not be remotely competitive without huge subsidies. In this case, $250 per acre foot plus publicly constructed and operated pipelines. So much for the pledge of, “no taxpayer money.”

It is anyone’s guess how long MWD will continue these subsidies. But there is an even better captive market than thirsty California. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is salivating at the chance to trade MWD for Colorado River water. Perhaps we are seeing the first signs of another stranded asset: the Colorado River Aqueduct.

Too Costly to Flush

The story of desalinated water has been largely one of unkept promises. Tampa Bay is a typical case. In 1999 Tampa Bay Water received a binding commitment for water at $557/AF. By 2004 costs were updated to $827. By 2008, after a month of operation, it was estimated the wholesale cost to be $1100/AF. Even if this were an inclusive accounting, there are two factors that work in Tampa’s favor: the salinity of the source water and their electricity rate. Both are critical to calculating water costs.

In 2003, Water International estimated that 44% of the cost of desalination was the energy component. But whose energy costs were they using, Florida or California? Or maybe Saudi Arabia? In 2002, Oil and Gas Journal ran a story on desalination facilities in Saudi Arabia. They reported construction costs of 30 facilities at $20 billion, $4 billion for operations and maintenance, and water at $1356/AF. While there are differences between the thermal process used in Saudi Arabia and the reverse osmosis projects in the U.S., the cost of natural gas in Saudi Arabia at that time was 75¢/Mcf—a fraction of what we pay in the U.S.

California’s checkered history with ocean desalination is equally unhelpful. Of those projects that have operated, the following costs have been reported:

  • Gaviota Oil and Gas Processing Plant: $4000/AF
  • Santa Catalina Island (built and operated by Southern California Edison): $2000/AF
  • U.S. Navy, San Nicolas Island: $6000/AF
  • PG&E Diablo Canyon Power Plant: $2000
  • City of Moro Bay: $1,750/AF

The City of Santa Barbara built a plant in the 1990s but never operated it. The Yuma Desalting Plant may be the biggest white elephant in the world. At the time it was built in the late 1980’s, it was the world’s largest reverse osmosis plant capable of desalting 72 million gallons per day. The $245 million project was constructed to comply with the 1944 treaty with Mexico to reduce salinity of Colorado River water from 2900 ppm to 115 ppm. The estimated cost of operations and management was $24 - $29 million per year. I’m told it has never operated except for tests.

This paltry record coupled with a lack of transparency in the industry keeps everyone guessing. It is difficult to challenge the wildly optimistic numbers that are perpetually paraded out at public meetings and in the press. Environmental documents can sometimes fill in a few blanks. The Huntington Beach EIR states that the Poseidon project will require 5476 kWh/AF. If Poseidon were paying a Florida rate of 4.5¢/kWh the cost of electricity alone would be $246/AF. If they paid what the average Californian pays (which includes bond repayment for the 2001 energy crisis)—12¢/kWh—their electricity costs alone would be $657/AF. Poseidon stated at one of the Task Force meetings that it was planning on electricity at 6¢/kWh—a rate that is not available to any industrial user in the state. With those kinds of savings they could perhaps purchase enough lobbying to get special dispensation.

Too much Water

One thing for sure, ocean desalination is not about California’s water crisis. We live in a desert and use too much water. Our water needs can be solved if we follow the lead of agencies like Irvine Ranch Water District and take appropriate measures: allocation based rate structures, smart timers, landscaping codes, and conservation. Ocean desalination is an example of our complete failure to recognize stark realities—water, food, energy, soil, air, and oceans are limited and our population and consumption keeps growing. Once again we are applying a technical fix to an adaptive challenge.


Typical California landscaping
Figure 4: Typical California landscaping


We are rapidly approaching the time when we will not have enough money to throw at our problems. We may be there now or we may be able to squeak out a few more stranded assets before our future catches up with our present. I’m betting on business as usual.


The next worst idea to turning tar sands into synthetic crude is turning ocean water into municipal drinking water.

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Reader Comments


Alternate Methods of Desalination

From: Peter Pethoe, Aug 9, 10 03:37 PM

Using Reverse Osmosis in desalinating 2 MGD seawater for Santa Cruz and Soquel Water is way too expensive, particularly since our present water is already overpriced compared to other areas in the State.
The RO process requires clean seawater without organisms and algae that require expensive pre-treatment. Solar and wind energy production are not planned to supply the expensive power needed to operate this RO plant.

There are other methods of desalination that are more cost effective!
Multi-stage Flash Distillation (MFD) heats seawater to steam and then condenses the vapor into potable water. The process uses many stages with subsequent lower atmospheric pressures that reduces the liquid boiling point, thus saving much heat energy. This desal method is used in Saudi Arabia where energy costs are low and on most ships and submarines. 85% of seawater processed into potable water around the world is produced by thermal desalination.
Even with our much higher energy costs these thermal methods are cost effective if alternate heat sources become available.

Here in Santa Cruz County we have the CEMEX cement plant in Davenport. Cement production is very energy consuming since the limestone has to be heated to 2700F. Instead of discharging the waste heat up the smokestack it can be recovered to turn seawater into steam and then condensed into potable water at much lower costs.

Re-opening the CEMEX plant results in many benefits to our Santa Cruz County:

High quality cement and aggregate will again be produced here.

Several hundred employees will again find gainful employment.

County will receive higher property and sales taxes.

North Coast Metro buses will run more frequently.

The recently purchased rail line will again carry sufficient cement freight and produce income to improve the rail, bridges, and trestles.

Davenport town residents will again receive affordable water.

The City's water main pipe already reaches Davenport about half way.

With essentially free waste heat the resulting brine can be turned into salt and sold instead of discharged into the ocean.

In light of the above stated benefits it would be wise for the County help the cement plant to reopen.

Although the Water Departments already spent about
$5 Million on a RO pilot plant some of the data gathered can be used in designing the MFD plant in Davenport since seawater should essentially be identical at both locations.

Further design of the proposed Reverse Osmosis facility should be halted and alternate methods considered that will lower operating costs considerably.



From: Ron Burke, Planning Commissioner, City of Capitola, Mar 15, 10 11:50 PM

As with household (over)spending, the solution to not having 'enough' is to first pare down consumption and then examine generating more to fill true needs vs wants.
The same holds true for water. Water is not free on many counts, and its consumption can not sustainably continue in deficit.


From: Dallas, Sep 16, 09 12:10 PM

As for the original article and most of the comments on this site (except the population discussions from Shela), there is a great deal of ignorance about the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics along with a lack of any biological/ecological knowledge. Debbie Cook's claim to understand energy and water does not seem to be supported by her comments.

As we add a lot of wind energy, whose output doesn't correspond to when you actually want energy, facilities like RO plants can be turned on and off on very short notice (few moving parts) to match the energy supply curve. That is why they could get cheaper energy, they can shut down for a few hours without any cost beyond depreciation and a minor amount of labor.

Desalination: Energy Down the Drain

From: IanR, Apr 3, 09 06:51 AM

Sheila is 100% right. Overpopulation has lead to over exploitation and collapse in many early societies. Our global society has been set on the same course for many decades and there are no signs that we are able, let alone willing, now to save ourselves from the inevitable collapse.

And don't tell me technology will save us (ie civilized society as a whole). Some technologies may delay the slippery slide but others will hasten it. Technology has made it easier and easier to damage our environment and there is no reason to suppose that this "progress" will not continue.

An earlier post needs to be

From: Anonymous, Apr 2, 09 05:51 AM

An earlier post needs to be corrected.

The existing desalination plant in Western Australia DOES NOT use renewable energy. A new bigger plant being planned is apparently going to use renewable energy but in my mind that just means the renewable energy capacity is not being used elsewhere or to reduce existing CO2 intensive energy demand.

I'm afraid Sheila is right:

From: Rose, Mar 31, 09 09:09 PM

I'm afraid Sheila is right: we are too bound up in our routine of politically correct, comforting and comfortable lives/views, and will not change in time to avoid a disastrous time, a "die-off." The formula i=pat, in which i is environmental impact, p is population, a is affluence, and t is technology, is still correct.

The water problem in the western U.S. is a perfect lens, a way of seeing our dilemma: ever more people need ever more water. As pointed out, desalination is energy-intensive, and also produces a heavy toxic brine mixed with chemicals to keep salt-water-bearing pipes operative.

We've reached a point in our population growth when there are no good alternatives, except for the one: stabilize and then gradually reduce our human numbers. If we don't, "nature" will surely do it for us.


From: sheila, Mar 27, 09 08:26 PM

No matter what technology we apply and how "green" it is, the most pressing problem is not oil decline, water shortages or food shortages, it's too many humans.

We are far beyond the carrying capacity of our planet and the quality of life for most of us has been declining for decades.

It's too late now to avoid collapse, we should have stopped population growth decades ago while the fossil fuel powered "green revolution" gave us time to do so.

Instead we merely used that "revolution" to keep pace with population growth without considering what would replace fossil resources when they declined.

Now here we sit, up a creek without a paddle and heading for the waterfall of oil depletion.

There is no solution to the mess we have made for ourselves, we could start to make reproduction socially undesirable, raising taxes for each child over one, ending all immigration, ending the child tax credits, making contraceptives and abortions free,not giving people on welfare larger apartments merely because they have more children, raise taxes on gas hogs, forbid selling fuel in cans for garden power tools, make the green lawn antisocial, encourage natural landscaping instead.

We are still doomed to collapse but at least we could reduce the die off and the suffering of having too many people on a finite planet.

I fear however that we will fight to keep business as usual going for as long as possible despite the consequences.

Stringent water rationing is

From: Anonymous, Mar 14, 09 03:21 PM

Stringent water rationing is the solution to this problem. Give people a minimum portion at an affordable rate and after that rate, make them pay through the nose. Economics will take care of demand, the oppurtunity cost will be too great and rationing will occur as a result of self regulation, or people will move out of the state. Arnie said the state had water enough for 18 million and the state has 38 million residents. We need millions of new farmers, time for the great migration to the mid-west to go back to the land. Water is as good as reason as any to do that.

Homo Sapien's very evolution

From: AVE_fan, Mar 7, 09 02:45 PM

Homo Sapien's very evolution and current existence has been about choosing "technological fixes" in response to "adaptive challenges". The gorilla and chimpanzee primate lines are a result of nature's having chosen to "adapt" through a more conservative, time-tested method by selecting "physical" survivability traits as opposed to "mental" traits (i.e.,relying on technology.)

Alternative energy should be observed through the same lens as all other forms of evolutionary changes--but in this case the stakes are greater. IMO, Global Heating will eventually produce anoxic conditions on the planet, and is the likely result if we don't change course.

I went to the (pro/con) website where people vote, expressing an "opinion" on the potential of renewable energy. These people were totally unaware of the presence of Convective Available Potential Energy (CAPE) in the air as an energy source, nor were they aware of the invention (patented) of the Atmospheric Vortex Engine as a existing technological concept to harvest it (using cold temperature in the upper troposphere). For the top ten (selected) opinions expressing doubt, virtually every one of them can be addressed by this technology or they simply do not apply.

I bet that if it were possible to have conducted a vote at the turn of the twentieth century concerning weather or not mankind would soon be able to apply in a "heavier-than-air" craft, the result would have been >90% in the negative. Technological feasibility, or lack thereof, is not determined by voting, it's determined by science.

When you say that energy based on fossil fuels has been misused, I would, of course, agree with you. Humanity will pay a heavy price because of it, and will probably will come to understand what happened. But it does not logically follow that there cannot be a turning point.

Most people think that it would be a "good thing" if more snow (originating from seawater) fell in the Sierra this spring so there would be more water during the summer month's for California's Central Valley. If, in its absence, we were able to compensate for not getting it from nature, by using renewables (eg seawater and CAPE) without further degrading the environment, why would you have any objections to pursuing that course of action?

When you speak of desalination, you must realize that all desalination methods are not the same. Existing methods my take an order of magnitude more energy than what may really be required (see

The seawater greenhouse may just be one of those methods that can accomplish desalination (or what I prefer to call, Humidity Enhancement) for far less energy than its competitors.

Finally, while "some" cities may well be overpopulated and people should be relocated from them, it doesn't follow that all of them are overpopulated. People will be needing water wherever they wind up living.

Australian governments plans to build desal plants

From: Anonymous, Mar 6, 09 07:19 PM

Australia's states and territories are currently dominated by the Australian Labor Party, a nominally social democratic party which has embraced neoliberal market principles since the early 1980s.

The state government of Western Australia was the first to propose the construction of a desalination plant which is now operating (?) but at least uses renewable energy to power it. The New South Wales Government soon followed suit, and its plant in southern Sydney is now under construction, despite opposition from the general population and the fact that Sydney has a high rainfall which is not being adequately harvested.

Since the election of a Rudd Labor Government at the Federal level, we have been told that all the states will have their own desal plants. Simultaneously, we are aware of efforts to privatise our water, and grand royal battles have opened up in Victoria, for example, where different agencies have fought with one another about whether recycling and concerted efforts to encourage residential users to instal rainwater tanks throughout metropolitan areas can substitute for a proposed desal plant.

The standard of public debate about the issue in Australia has generally been woeful, however, so it is very encouraging to see such a clear-headed analysis on this site. Thank you!

Technical fixes to social problems

From: Anonymous, Mar 5, 09 02:54 PM

"Once again we are applying a technical fix to an adaptive challenge."

Alternative energy in general should be analyzed with this lens.

Even if renewables could replace our current energy needs (which is highly questionable) do we really want them to? Do we really want to repower (with renewable energy) the same systems of domination that have led us to the current social, economic and environmental crisis? Renewable energy can clear cut forests, fill up landfills, power prisons, and perpetuate the general culture of alienation just as well as fossil fuels.

What if the desalination plants were run with solar power, would that make them a good idea? I think not. Why do large cities need to consider desalinization in the first place?

Its obvious - large cities in general are not a sustainable method of social organization.

There are two emerging

From: AVE_fan, Mar 2, 09 02:34 PM

There are two emerging technologies that, working independently or together, could either remedy or greatly mitigate the environmental impact of once-through cooling, and to supply additional amounts of fresh water taken from the sea without significant expenditures of energy.

They are first, the Atmospheric Vortex Engine, to which the cooling systems of these plants can be converted, while, at the same time increasing electricity output by 20-30%. This uses air to cool the condensers; then electricity is produced by passing the heated air through an expander; the still buoyant air finally ascending from the plant. See

Secondly, a certain amount of water can be produced by implementing the sea water greenhouse technology to grow produce, with fresh water being produced at night. (

The Atmospheric Vortex Engine (AVE) can be used to pull air, humidified with seawater, through the production system and eventually exhaust it in the upper troposphere in a symbiotic fashion.

A pilot project to develop and test these technologies should be implemented immediately, IMO.