Desalination: Technological and Legal Issues

By Andrew Angeles

In the 2016-2017 winter, California received enough rain such that most of the state is no longer facing a severe drought.[1]  However, problems associated with water scarcity in a state with 39.25 million people will not be resolved from one wet season.  This is especially true when the state contains three of the four North American Deserts with little fresh water sources.  Combined with climate change and the increase in global temperatures, California will likely find itself in the middle of another drought in the coming years.  Therefore, Californians should be prepared for alternatives plans to prepare for water scarcity.  One such possibility for California is using desalination.  However, the method comes with numerous technological and local issues.  Desalination is an energy intensive method that pumps salt water at high pressures through a variety of filters.  The result is clean water that can be used for distribution to customers.  This blog post will briefly outline the major technological and legal issues associated with desalination.  Further, it concludes that desalination technology requires development and Californians should focus on conservation efforts.

Monetary Costs of Desalination: Infrastructure and Technology

The costs for the development of the infrastructure and the operation of plants are high.  The Pacific Institute found that though the operation costs have variability, plants can still cost $1,900-$3,000 per acre-foot.[2]  Essentially, plants end up costing millions of dollars for installation and operation.  The Carlsbad desalination plant cost $1 billion to build and $50 million a year for the operation.[3]  The high costs of the technology get passed onto consumers that receive abnormally large bills.  For example, the Carlsbad desalination plant’s consumers pay more than double compared to most Southern California cities.[4]  While the costs for desalination have been driven down over the years, the monetary costs remain high.  Desalination has been successful in certain contexts and desalination costs are decreasing, but for California to explore desalination as a solution comes with a large price tag.[5]  Monetary costs are not the only consequences of attempting to shift to a desalination supply right now.

Local Environmental Issues: Brine and Marine Life

Desalination also presents multiple environmental issues and costs associated with its use in California.[6]  First since desalination requires a location along the coast near the saltwater, marine life is put at risk.[7]  The original seawater is pumped into the desalination plants, but aquatic life such as fish, plankton, and larvae may be killed on the intake screens.[8]  Those same animals could be killed during the desalination process as well.[9] These issues are known as impingement and entrainment respectively.[10]  Additionally, after the desalination process, the salt brine waste is dispersed back into the ocean.[11]  However, little is known about the long-term impacts of the disposal.[12]

Climate Change Issues

The main climate change issues come with the energy needed to pump the water and filter it.[13]  There is also energy required to pump both the brine and distribute clean water to consumers.  The energy used relies upon power sources that may emit greenhouse gases.[14]  Nearly half of California’s electricity and energy power supply rely upon natural gas, which still emits pollution into the air.[15]  It must be said that if California switches entirely onto renewable energy, the energy and G.H.G. emissions concerns are mitigated.  Yet a 100% switch faces numerous challenges and is another discussion.

Legal Landscape

The legal landscape surrounding desalination started with planning and development laws.  The 1965 Saline Water Conversion Law, 1999 California Water Plan, and 2002 Water Desalination Task Force are all dedicated for exploring the opportunities and impediments of desalination.[16]  Over time some laws have been dedicated toward funding such as SB 314 2003 Desalination.[17]  Recently, the 2004 California Ocean Protection Act attempts to protect ocean resources within existing fiscal limitations by coordinating state agencies.[18]  Further, the AB 2918 2004 Desalination Facilities required the commission to consider desalination considering electricity policies.[19]  SB 318 2004 Urban Water Suppliers: Desalination Water is another planning bill focused on the opportunities in ocean water, brackish water, and ground water.[20]  The laws have been largely exploratory and planning oriented, but more laws may be passed in support of, or against the desalination industry.


After considering monetary costs and the environmental costs, the costs seem to outweigh the benefits of installing and operating desalination plants for the time being.  It should be noted that not all the issues have been touched upon as this is a complex issue.  While California should keep on open mind for technology and policy solutions to issues, desalination now comes with high costs when there are short-term alternatives.  For example, California can reduce water usage and consumption.  Conservation methods can also have a substantial impact on the California’s water resources.  Thus, more research and technological development is required before desalination can be implemented in California on a large scale.

[1] .  California Water Science Center, Is the drought over?, May 31, 2017.

[2] Key Issues in Seawater Desalination in California: Marine Impacts, Dec. 11, 2013.

[3] David Gorn, Desalination’s Future in California is Clouded by Cost and Controversy, Oct. 31, 2016.

[4] Id.

[5] Anthony Bennett, Cost effective desalination; Innovation continues to lower desalination costs, Feb. 14, 2012; Michael Hiltzik, Desalination plants aren’t a good solution for California Drought, Apr. 24, 2015.

[6] David Gorn, Desalination’s Future in California is Clouded by Cost and Controversy, Oct. 31, 2016.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Daniel Potter, Why Isn’t Desalination the Answer to All California’s Water Problems?, Dec. 18, 2015.

[14] Id.

[15] California Air Resources Board, California Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory Program, Nov. 20, 2017.

[16] Water Desalination, California Department of Water Resources, July 20, 2015.


[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

Desalination: Technological and Legal Issues

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