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Is desalination the future of drought relief in California?

San Diego is set to soon start supplying itself with millions of gallons a day of fresh, drinkable water, using saltwater from the Pacific Ocean, converted by a brand new desalination plant. As California's historic drought continues, the plant will likely intensify the debate over the role of desalination may play in the state's water supply. Special Correspondent Mike Taibbi reports.

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  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    On the surface, San Diego doesn't scream "water crisis." Kids still splash in public fountains, and the lawns haven't all been converted to sand and succulents.

    But the water story below the surface is historically grim. Four years of almost no rain, record low snowpack from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and record high temperatures are causing the worst drought since the state has kept weather records.

  • PSA:

    "CUT BACK NOW!"

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    California has imposed conservation measures requiring a 25-percent reduction in water usage. Even the state's biggest drinkers — the agricultural producers who consume 80 per cent of the state's water — are being forced to cut back

    Now, the state's second most populous county, San Diego County, is betting on the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere to boost its water supply.

    So this is it, this is where the magic happens?

  • PETER MACLAGGAN:

    The desalination process that we have running behind us here is the most efficient desalination technology anywhere in North America.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Peter MacLaggan is a Senior Vice President of Poseidon Water, which will operate the plant in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego. Poseidon spent a billion dollars and took nearly three years to build it.

  • PETER MACLAGGAN:

    This facility will create an opportunity to learn what large-scale desalination can mean to Southern California and the rest of the state, for that matter. We've got the largest reservoir in the world here at our doorstep.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    That reservoir is the Pacific Ocean — covering a-third of the planet's surface with saltwater. Of course, converting saltwater to freshwater is not exactly a new idea: Greek sailors did that with crude evaporation techniques back in the 4th century BC.

    Today, at least 120 countries use desalination — or "desal," as it's commonly called. Saudi Arabia relies on desalination for 70 percent of its water needs and Poseidon Water sees itself starting a trend in the U.S. here in San Diego, out of necessity.

  • PETER MACLAGGAN:

    We get 85 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away. That water's under intense competition, interstate competition, competition between farmers and urban settings. So in Southern California, this will not be the last desalination plant that gets built, there'll be others that follow.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Here's how state-of-the-art desalination process works: The plant draws saltwater through ocean intake pipes with screens to keep out marine organisms.

    Sand and chemical filters further clean the seawater, which is pushed through thousands of tubes — each with filters so fine that water can get through, but the larger salt particles cannot. It's a technology known as "reverse osmosis."

    This version of the process uses half as much energy as it did 20 years ago while also pumping out a higher volume of water.

    The captured salt is diluted with the cooling water from the neighboring power station, and that's discharged back into the ocean.

    Fresh water is what remains.

  • The last step:

    These eight high-powered pumps start shoving 50 million gallons of fresh water a day through these big pipes, up the hill and straight in to the aqueduct that serves 112,000 homes, some 300,000 people, about a tenth the population of San Diego County.

    San Diego County has committed to buying water from this plant for the next 30 years. That will increase monthly water bills for residents and businesses by about 6 percent, says Bob Yamada of the San Diego County Water Authority.

  • BOB YAMADA:

    The cost to the average rate payer, let's say the average residential customer, is going to be about $5 a month, in terms of their individual cost to pay for the water supply coming from this facility.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    The Water Authority's own poll of a-thousand San Diego residents last year showed overwhelming support for what it called a "diversified water strategy" to include desalination.

    And for around five dollars a month per family to remediate the effects of the drought, Carlsbad could be the bellwether. More than a dozen other desalination plants are now in the planning stages up and down the California coast.

    All of them call for the modernized "reverse osmosis" design that Poseidon is using here.

    Earlier this year, "NewsHour Weekend" visited a plant in Israel that is using the same technology that now provides nearly half that country's drinking water.

  • BOB YAMADA:

    We're able to produce up to 54 million gallons a day of desalinated ocean water. That's enough to fill an olympic-sized pool every 18 minutes.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    That all sounds good, a drought-proof supply of fresh water. But critics say there are still questions about desal, and the bandwagon is filling up way to fast.

    Among those critics is Matt O'Malley of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, which filed one of several lawsuits that tried and failed to delay construction of the plant. He says the Carlsbad plant will generate greenhouse gases that could contribute to more frequent droughts.

  • MATT O’MALLEY:

    We're sort of sticking ourselves in this cycle. You can't really desal yourself out of a drought, because what you're doing is partly contributing to the exacerbation of climate change and to droughts long-term.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Even with its efficient design, the plant will burn through 840 megawatts of power per day — about the same amount of electricity used to power nearly 30-thousand homes.

    Then there are other environmental questions, such as, what are the long-term effects of dumping all that concentrated salt back in the ocean? Poseidon says that won't hurt marine life, and it will be monitoring the salinity levels around the plant.

  • PETER MACLAGGAN:

    All the science supports the fact that we can do this without harming the environment.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    California's Coastal Commission signed off on this project after a six-year permitting process, but has required Poseidon to implement mitigation measures, like restoring local wetlands. And the state has enacted new guidelines for future desalination plants, which include placing intake valves fully underwater to reduce risks to marine life.

    Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which uses its technology to study earth's water supply, says there hasn't been enough research on desal's long-term impacts.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    I'm worried only because of the unknown environmental impacts. The unquantified environmental impacts. Let's do the work. Let's do the work and figure out what the environmental consequences are, and if they are acceptable, great. But we haven't done that work.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    The country's going to say, 'We can't afford to wait.'

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    I bet we can afford to wait, and the way we afford it is by more conservation and efficiency.

  • MATT O’MALLEY:

    We still have communities in San Diego that are using per capita over 350 gallons a day.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Environmentalist O'Malley agrees the county should promote more water conservation, capture storm water, and recycle wastewater — including from toilet to tap.

  • MATT O’MALLEY:

    It's the general reduce, reuse, recycle mantra, and it applies to water as well.

    It's hard for me to say that we should be investing all this money and the associated environmental costs when we are still using water in some places in our community at obscene rates.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    But the question remains: can the drought zone afford to wait? California has struggled with drought and limited water supply throughout its whole history.

    Even with a forecast for a wet winter, thanks to El Nino, the NASA water scientist says the current water shortage numbers don't lie.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    It will take about 12 trillion gallons of water in storage in our reservoirs and snowpack, in our groundwater, to get us out of the drought. That's going to take about four years of above average precipitation, so not one El Nino, not two, but three or four above average years of precipitation.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Desalination might help make up that deficit. It provides a more expensive and energy intensive source of fresh water, but it's also the more reliable one. Even a drought cannot dry out the Pacific.

    That's why up the coast, in Santa Barbara, another desalination plant could be running next year. The city built one back in 1992 in the middle of a five-year drought, at the time, one of the state's most severe.

    But then the rains came — a lot of rain — and, just four months after the plant started running, the city shut it off to save money.

    Now, Santa Barbara is spending 55 million dollars to knock down the existing pumps and filters to turn this into a modern desalination operation.

    Helene Schneider is the mayor.

  • SANTA BARBARA MAYOR HELENE SCHNEIDER:

    This drought will end one day, there is going to be another drought in the future. We don't want to be put in the situation of going through a panicky session of getting permits up to date or getting things moving. We want to have desal as an option when we need it.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    What happens if the rains come this time, and they come in El Nino proportions, in that magnitude? Is there going to be some hand wringing, saying 'did we screw up again here?'

  • MAYOR HELENE SCHNEIDER:

    We're doing the best we can with the information we have at the time we have it. And I've said many times, I've been calling Mother Nature, she's not returning my phone calls.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    Mayor Schneider knows California's water crisis won't be solved by desalination.

    It will at best be a partial solution — supplying an important though limited amount of the population's water needs: about 30 percent of demand in Santa Barbara and about 10 percent in San Diego.

    But Poseidon's Peter MacLaggan believes desalination is a game changer and "another tool in the toolbox" come rain or come shine.

  • PETER MACLAGGAN:

    It can rain buckets all winter long, and that will be a great thing, but it's not going to eliminate the need for this facility.

  • MIKE TAIBBI:

    But as California considers more and more desalination options, it will have to weigh the costs and benefits of turning to this great reservoir just off its coast.

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