Australia’s experience with desalination is equally sobering and enlightening. Australian residents are water misers compared to Californians. Average Australian households uses 54 gallons per person each day (for both indoor and outdoor uses), compared to 230 gallons in California; and in the state of Victoria, water usage is on only 40 gallons per person (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2013).
Australians lowered their water consumption dramatically over the past decade in response to the unprecedented Millennium Drought (2000-2010). Authorities responded by adopting new water-saving habits as well as water-efficient technologies. For example, dual-flush toilets are now found in nine out of ten Australian homes. A third of homes capture rooftop runoff in a rainwater tank, and the government offer rebates to residents installing rainwater tanks or graywater systems to recycle water (Heberger 2011).
Even with all of these efforts, desalination has been problematic: In response to the Millennium Drought they invested $10 billion dollars in desalination plants, most of which they now cannot afford to run. Four of the six major plants they built are shut down or running at a fraction of their capacity, but ratepayers are still paying for these plants. This is exactly what happened when Santa Barbara, California built an expensive desalination plant two decades ago and then had to mothball it because they couldn’t afford to run it and didn’t need the water because people conserved and there was cheaper water available. Yet that lesson seems to have been forgotten.
The bottom line for desalination in California? There is more desalination in California’s future. But the future isn’t here yet.
California should add desalination to the mix of options only after the state and local agencies do the other things that are more cost effective and environmentally appropriate first: continue to improve the efficiency of current water use, greatly expand wastewater treatment and reuse, and bring our agricultural economy into the 21st century. Even then, local agencies should think twice. There should be no subsidies or accelerated environmental review or special treatment to private companies seeking to build desalination plants and then sell the water under take-or-pay contracts to the public. Either desalination is the right choice or it isn’t. At the moment, in California, it isn’t.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2013. “Water,” chapter 2 in Information Paper: Towards the Australian Environmental-Economic Accounts, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. http://tinyurl.com/oa5eq4b
California Department of Water Resources (CDWR). 2014. Applied Water and Irrigated Acreage from the California Department of Water Resources. Statewide Water Balances, 1998–2010. Sacramento, California.
Cooley, H., PH Gleick, R. Wilkinson. 2014. Water Reuse Potential in California. Pacific Institute and NRDC. http://pacinst.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2014/06/ca-water-reuse.pdf (Accessed June 8, 2015)
Heberger, M. 2011. “Australia’s Millennium Drought: Impacts and Responses,” in The World’s Water, Volume 7: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, Peter H. Gleick, ed., 97-126. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Israel’s Agriculture. (Accessed 2015). http://www.moag.gov.il/agri/files/Israel%27s_Agriculture_Booklet.pdf. Accessed June 2015.
Olmstead, A. L. 1997. “The evolution of California agriculture.” Overview of the History of California. Retrieved: September 9, 2011. http://giannini.ucop.edu/CalAgBook/Chap1.pdf
United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). 2015. AQUASTAT database. (Accessed on June 9, 2015.)
USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Data accessed 2015. California data on harvested acreage in 2012 and crop production from USDA NASS.
Additional Pacific Institute Publications on Desalination
Desalination, With a Grain of Salt (Full report, 2006)
Proposed California Desalination Facilities (2012)
Cost and Financing of Desalination (2012)
Marine Impacts of Desalination (2013)
Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Desalination Facilities (2013)