back to article How much of one year's Californian energy use would wipe out the drought?

That California drought - it's terrible, isn't it? But there's nothing to be done. If it doesn't rain for a few years, and doesn't snow up in the mountains, Californians must just yield to Mother Nature and stop watering their lawns, stop washing their cars, maybe even stop growing those delicious but thirsty almonds. Or ... …

  1. usbac Silver badge

    Not going to happen

    The problem is that the environmental impact studies would take decades.

    Then you would have dozens of environmental wacko groups suing the municipalities that are trying to build the plants. The lawsuits would take many more decades to get through the courts.

    You have to remember this is California we are talking about here! It's the highest concentration of environmental activists (wackos) on the planet.

    1. Munin

      Re: Not going to happen

      It's not just environmentalists, either.

      One of the interesting things about California's legislative system is the ability for any sufficiently organized [ read: they can file some paperwork and get enough suckers to sign a petition ] group of citizens to, in effect, put legislation on the ballot.

      This is how we got the "Proposition 65" that, as of a couple years ago, forced Starbucks to start putting cancer warnings on their door.

      There's several groups that are organized to represent "citizens concerned about governmental overreach and taxation" [ read: virulently anti-tax, and committed to abolishing every tax they can get support for ] that would be very interested in opposing any publicly-funded projects that show up on the ballot.

      Even if the legislature managed to get its act together enough to begin such a program, it would be at the cost of one or more of the legislator's seats - as is evidenced by the recall campaign starting against the gent who authored the bill calling for mandatory vaccination.

      So while environmentalists are, certainly, one cause that will put the kibosh on desal plants, there's quite a few others who are just as committed to keeping the state dry.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Re: Not going to happen

      "It's the highest concentration of environmental activists (wackos) on the planet."

      NOT ONLY THAT, but the statistics of ACTUAL WATER USAGE have been intentionally SKEWED to avoid reporting the fact that the MAJORITY of California's fresh water goes to ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS. You know, like filling up the Sacramento River Delta to save that all-important DELTA SMELT. Or replenishing "wetlands" (aka SWAMPS). It's about HALF of the fresh water that California has that is for THE ENVIRONMENT. But THE ENVIRONMENT should have to undergo drought restrictions too, right?

      So the REAL numbers look like this:

      1. Environment (50%)

      2. Farms (40%)

      3. Citizens (10%)

      And WHERE are all of the 'drought restrictions' focused? On the 10% naturally, because it's about THE CONTROL, and not about THE WATER.

      So it's not so much LAZINESS as it is PURE NEGLIGENCE and EVIL INTENT.

      link to article

      1. Martin Summers

        Re: Not going to happen

        WOULD read and PROBABLY making a GOOD point if it were NOT for ALL those EVIL CAPITAL LETTERS.

        1. cray74

          Re: Not going to happen

          "WOULD read and PROBABLY making a GOOD point if it were NOT for ALL those EVIL CAPITAL LETTERS."

          Not necessarily, since the reference is from the National Review. If it's not flaming Obama (because Obama), then the problem is environmentalists, liberals, and/or feminists, with room for feminazis, econazis, and nazi liberals. It could be completely correct, but if the National Review says the sky is blue then it's worth sticking your head outside to get a second source.

        2. GBE

          Re: Not going to happen

          "WOULD read and PROBABLY making a GOOD point if it were NOT for ALL those EVIL CAPITAL LETTERS."

          His keyboard must have been out of green ink.

      2. James 51

        Re: Not going to happen

        Let me get this straight, are you saying not destroying important habitats that have other benefits such as food production and acting as part of coastal defence, where the water would be going if people weren't taking it is evil?

        1. Eddy Ito

          Re: Not going to happen

          The killer is there are multiple salt plants who collect the sea salt after evaporating the water. There's absolutely no reason they couldn't take most of the water out to use for consumer use before putting a concentrated brine in their salt ponds and it would probably improve their salt production. No, lets just ignore that perfectly good fresh water that we can very easily capture with nearly zero environmental impact other than slightly lowering the humidity near the salt plant. The plants are already there, all they lack is a little equipment to capture the fresh water. Yep, even that is too hard.

          1. Charles Manning

            According to wonkapedia it only takes 3kWh/m^3 for desalination.


            At 200litres per person (a generous amount), that's 600Wh per person per day. Bugger all really.

            Reverse osmosis of waste water produces even better efficiency.

            You can guarantee though that the politicians want to keep this drought alive. Fear keeps the populace in their place.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Not going to happen

        Then you would have dozens of environmental wacko groups suing the municipalities that are trying to build the plants. The lawsuits would take many more decades to get through the courts.

        It's worse than that. Having briefly worked with some environmental and anti-discrimination groups, I quickly lost my childish innocence about these causes. The cold truth of these organizations is that they are all about organized blackmail. I was so naive to think they really gave a damn. it was all about payola.

        The people on the street - the protestors, the letter writers, the mobs - all have good intentions. But the people running these groups all want a cut off the top. Pay up and they tell the protestors to go away. Don't pay and they suffocate you in court for years.

        1. Tom 13

          Re: all have good intentions.

          The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, or at least that's what I've been told.

          No, I don't give the benefit of the doubt to the radicals in the streets. It requires a great intentional suspension of disbelief to assign evil motives to your neighbors. Any sane examination of the results their protests have generated will tell you what they're doing doesn't achieve their stated objectives.

      4. cesium

        Re: Not going to happen

        Yeah. Can you believe those environmental wackos want to keep the Sacramento river from drying up? Letting the Delta Smelt die off is good. Letting salt water back up from the San Francisco Bay to Sacramento is good. Destroying the crop land between Berkeley and Sacramento is no problem. Destroying the food chain of the delta is no problem. Migratory birds? Screw them. We don't need rivers and salmon and trees, unless they are fruit or nut trees.

    3. IvyKing

      Re: Not going to happen

      The desal plant in Carlsbad that will b coming on-line soon was delayed for several years by environmentalists. One of the more bizarre arguments was the amount of sea life that would be killed after being drawn into the sea water intakes - of course no regard was given to the number of Delta Smelt that would be saved by the water in the Delta not being sent south.

      A couple of interesting factoids - less energy is required to produce a given volume of water from RO than to get the same volume of water over the Tehachapis from norther Cal. The newest membranes will require less energy per volume of water than to get water from the Colorado river to San Diego.

    4. Mi Tasol

      Re: Not going to happen

      Penn and Teller went to an "environmental" talkfest and managed to get the head of a major green organisation to sign a petition against Di-Hydrogen Oxide which is, you guessed it, water. Track down their season one episode "Environmental-Hysteria" and see for yourself. It is track 3 on CD 3 if you can get that.

      When I lived in CA in the early 70s there was a proposal to use heat exchangers in the cooling systems of offshore nuclear powerplants to create massive quantities of fresh water for cities and agriculture but that was until the loonies said no.

      1. tojb

        Re: Not going to happen

        Big problem with current society is that the explanations for many serious problems just go over the heads of the people making the decisions. Plenty of MPs lack a grade-C maths O level, certainly the people who vote for them do.

        Undemocratic decision makers such as civil service bods, Quangos, eurocrats may be our only hope. And that is not much of a hope, as many of these are much the same types as the MPs but not sufficiently likeable to be elected.

  2. Munin
    Thumb Down

    Small issue of infrastructure

    So, good article, but I have a few quibbles as someone who lives in California.

    First, this assumes that there are enough desalinization plants to handle demand - which there aren't, and there won't be for quite some time. Desalinization plants are expensive to build and maintain, and every time those of us who support them try to get them built, the various interests opposing them kick up a huge fuss - interests that vary depending on where, precisely, you want to build the thing, but generally including both environmentalists and very rich people who don't like eyesores. Even if you can get the things built, they still need to be certified as safe by various agencies, etc., which turns into a (mostly political) boondoggle.

    Second, this also assumes that there's enough electricity capacity to manage to run the things. This is a somewhat more complex topic, but the long and short of it is that, especially since the nuclear plant down by San Diego was forced to close, electricity capacity is somewhat shaky, especially during the height of summer. California's electricity infrastructure doesn't really have the capacity for the amount of load that a bunch of new desal plants would require - we've already got advertisements all over the radio demanding electricity conservation pretty much year-round.

    Remember, any power used for desalinization is power that can't be used to run the air conditioners of the rich folk in Beverly Hills, and they get all upset when rolling blackouts start.

    So yes, it would be, when amortized across the entire population, a fairly reasonable cost and one which I, for one, would be more than willing to bear. However, as lovely as the plan is in theory, implementing it in practice is significantly more complex.

    But if Mr. Page would like to come show us lazy Californians how it works, I'd be more than willing to give him directions to Sacramento so he can show our perpetually incompetent legislature what for.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Small issue of infrastructure

      Let me punch up one point for you... the financial analysis does not consider the COST to build and maintain the infrastructure (both de-salinization and power infrastructure, not to mention water delivery infrastructure), only the cost of energy to run it. The financial model being presented is bogus.

      This is akin to saying you only need $2k annually and you can have a Tesla, without taking into account acquisition, maintenance, and battery replacement costs. And oh yeah, you live in a city without a parking space so you need to factor in parking costs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Small issue of infrastructure

        > "The financial model being presented is bogus."

        We are discussing a state where the government is planning to build (with tax monies) a hugely expensive high-speed train that cannot be rationally justified. Thus such a water scheme will never happen, due to it's obvious utility.

        1. Grikath

          Re: Small issue of infrastructure @ AC

          You are, of course, right in the fact that there's stuff missing in the calculation.

          However, the first thing that gets shouted about when it comes to desal plants is the energy requirement, and pointing out that in the grand scheme of things the energy requirement isn't impossible and actually quite fesible, provided, pulls that particular barb.

          Also not included is that with proper waste water treatment you can use the same water several times over, as with a properly set up water management scheme the only water you lose is through evaporation to the air, which is mostly agriculture (this is including the green lawns and golf courses..).

          The whole picture is , as ever, a bit more complicated. But Lewis has a point purely from the perspective of energy used.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            No new power infrastructure is needed...this really isn't that complicated

            This isn't like turning on a light or the AC, where you need to have power available at that time. You can operate the desalination plants with off-peak energy, as well as buffer the variable demands (and supplies) during peak energy usage.

            Given that this is a problem that has built up for years, and California is draining its aquifers even when they aren't experiencing a drought, you'd want to build the desalination plants so that they would be operated regularly (not continuously, we're using off-peak energy remember?)

            Lewis' suggestion of adding 2% to California's energy usage to fix the problem over six years seems like a good initial target for the level of desalinization infrastructure you'd want to build. Enough to get "back to normal" in six years, and pumping the water into the aquifers to make up for those losses down the road. You can always add more plants down the road if the drought continues or worsens, or operate them less often if California starts setting yearly rainfall records.

            OK, what about the environmental impact? California wants to reduce its CO2 impact, not permanently increase it by 2%! So how about wind or solar? The state I live in generates a quarter of its electricity from wind power. California's population is 13x larger, so if they added as much generation capacity as my state has, that would be their 2%. Though the desert may point to solar being a simpler alternative there - I merely pointed out the comparison with my state to forestall those who will claim "do you know how much energy California uses, there is no way renewable energy can produce that much".

            The desalination plants wouldn't be directly powered by solar or wind, that would be added into the grid, and the desalination plants would act as buffers by using power that the rest of the grid doesn't need at the moment during peaks, and running on a more continuous basis during off-peak hours.

            In this way renewable energy could solve California's water problems - and the water bills of California residents would pay for it. Using renewable energy may cost more today than just adding another gas fired plant or two, but getting new fossil fuel power plants built in California is not easy. Wind & solar is (at least comparatively speaking)

            1. Roland6 Silver badge

              Re: No new power infrastructure is needed...this really isn't that complicated

              "The desalination plants wouldn't be directly powered by solar or wind" Doug S

              Actually, a desalination plant is an ideal candidate to be directly connected to solar and/or wind turbines, because once you've established a reserve and have a reasonably good weather forecast model, it doesn't really matter when the plant runs and the rate at which it runs at, just as long as it runs some of the time.

            2. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

              Do US A favour

              Look up the video on the infrastructure requirements discussed in the Video about a cubic mile of oil. It will save you seeming as foolish as the people who upvoted you, next time you feel the need to uneducate US.

            3. Tom 13

              Re: No new power infrastructure is needed...this really isn't that complicated

              Since an earlier poster has for someone else, let me emphasize this point for you:

              California is draining its aquifers even when they aren't experiencing a drought

              Kali has to rethink everything they're doing out there. The problem is too many of them won't rise above the level of feeling.

          2. Vector

            Re: Small issue of infrastructure @ AC

            "Also not included is that with proper waste water treatment you can use the same water several times over..."

            Actually, as the extent of the drought began to take hold in the press, "toilet to tap" was getting quite a bit of coverage, particularly for the "eww" factor. I found it pretty funny since, in reality, most water was waste water at some point. It just gets cleaned up by the environment most of the time. Short cutting that process sounds perfectly reasonable to me with the right controls in place.

            As to the rest of the conversation: typical. "It'll never happen because politics!" So let's all just bury our heads because we can't do nuthin.

            I've always found talk of water shortages silly because, as pointed out in the article, there's plenty of water around, it just needs a little processing to be usable. So let's put our techno-industrial minds to work and get it done.

          3. cesium

            Re: Small issue of infrastructure @ AC

            Ah, well, in that case, Lewis doesn't have a point. San Diego currently recycles its waste water and is moving toward closing the loop and using the recycled waste water as drinking water. It's already quite common for cities to use recycled waste water for landscape watering. It's just a matter of time before most cities are running fully closed loops.

      2. Hardrada

        Re: Small issue of infrastructure

        "Let me punch up one point for you... the financial analysis does not consider the COST to build and maintain the infrastructure (both de-salinization and power infrastructure, not to mention water delivery infrastructure), only the cost of energy to run it. The financial model being presented is bogus."

        The same applies to most green policy proposals. Do they consider the energy required to refine enough aluminum for the extra transmission lines needed to make the solar economy work? No. Do they bother to look up the recycling rate to make sure that specifying 80/20 would actually increase recycling (and decrease refining)? No. Do they bother to check whether a 60 year lifespan is the hard limit for a nuclear plant? No. Do they include the CO2 cost of building factories to make solar cells in large volumes? No.

        1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

          Nuclear have life

          I went around the Cemaes Bay reactor before they shut it. They got a license extended to keep it open because the graphite core was uncontaminated. Then Thatcher went to war with the miners then shortly after they closed a spate of nuclear power plants. Since then I have been looking at lots of videos on Thorium reactors and it has been a mind opener.

          Large firms in the business of farming plutonium residues do so only with the connivance of corporate and political scum. The actual grunts: nuclear physicists have no say in what is best policy or why. Harvesting spent plutonium is a racket that will continue to make money for all concerned for 24,100^2 years until we start building thorium plant and shooting large power company/environmental agency management.

          1. SolidSquid

            Re: Nuclear have life

            The main restriction on thorium based reactors is finding a fuel rod container which can withstand the heat of the reactor and the corrosion of the salt solution the thorium is stored in. Otherwise it's a fantastic idea though, and definitely seems like something we should look to put money into along side renewables

          2. cesium

            Re: Nuclear have life

            Malarkey. Conniving corporate and political scum are all about making money. If Thorium reactors were profitable, they would be all over it.

        2. Adrian Midgley 1

          Re: Small issue of infrastructure

          Usually yes, when engineers get involved.

          I think transmission lines are for power, and go with power used, not power generated.

          Diffuse power production reduces the flows through transmission lines, compared to central generation.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Small issue of infrastructure

      @Munin, Just how much of the energy problem in California is down to the large reliance on renewable energy?

      Just remember that renewable energy will never supply base load and any politician that thinks so is conning you.

      1. Tom 13

        Re: the large reliance on renewable energy?

        Kali has had energy problems since about the time Enron fleeced them of billions. While renewables may have exacerbated the problem, it existed before that change. Fundamentally, too many people are unwilling to live near the power plant (whichever type you want to name) for various and sundry reasons. Couple that with a failure to increase support infrastructure with population rises and you have the perfect storm.

        Oh, and for all of you talking about recycling the waste water, Kali has an interesting sewage problem in a number of locations. With all of the Al Gore low flush and super low flush toilets out there, the sewer pipes don't have enough water in them to maintain waste flow. So that ain't getting ya there either.

      2. cesium

        Re: Small issue of infrastructure

        Renewable energy is about 20% of California electricity consumption. (

        And, funny thing, the sun reliably shines here on days when people run their air conditioners. Also, in California we have geothermal energy. Works great as base load. They even have it closer to you. In Iceland.

      3. Adrian Midgley 1

        Re: Small issue of infrastructure

        Solar power fits quite nicely with air-conditioning though.

        And combining solar power generation with desalination seems a nice fit, even if you don't want to do solar distillation.

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Small issue of infrastructure

      "air conditioners of the rich folk in Beverly Hills"

      Rolling blackout would at least show up the true green rich for trendy green rich once the backup generators start getting installed.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Small issue of infrastructure

      @ Munin

      What the hell is a desalinization plant!

      Shirley you just mean desalination as per the article?

      Burglarize v Burgle.

  3. Me3


    Yep - I have to agree with both of the above. I live here in beautiful San Diego and we've been working to get a desal plant for the last 20 years.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: DeSal

      Who is the "we've" who have been working to get a desal plant in San Diego? Is it a question of money, is it being held up by the state, by the feds, by environmentalists, or what?

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is exactly what I was asking people the other day.

    How in ${DEITY}'s name can we be short of water when we live (mostly) next to the sea.

    This is the 21st Century. I'm sure that there are some clever people in California that could come up with a solution or two.

    Here's a thought though: since the climate is supposedly changing and we're going to be getting longer, hotter summers, that's an awful lot of energy going to waste.

    Instead of everyone putting up their arms and waving them around in despair, why don't we try and use it?

    1. Charles Manning

      "some clever people ...could come up with a solution or two."

      And some even clever and infinitely more powerful politicians well motivated to thwart them.

    2. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Taking the name of the lord in vane

      When I jump in it is usually head first and what I generally aim at would be better use of both feet; however:

    3. P. Lee

      >Here's a thought though: since the climate is supposedly changing and we're going to be getting longer, hotter summers, that's an awful lot of energy going to waste.

      Perhaps if we had more water, we could plant more, er, plants, which would help offset the CO2, instead of crying "drought!" and letting everything turn into a dustbowl.

      But as has been said, why would the companies spend millions when they can just order a shortage for free? Plus, if everyone accepts the shortage, you've got a good excuse to raise prices.

      I suspect we just have to wait until things get a bit worse, so that it becomes worthwhile for a politician to stand up and say, "Oi, do it or we'll nationalise your sorry assets." Sadly, even then, they'll do it, the taxpayer will stump up for the costs and then it'll be sold off to some chums. Then we'll be back at the point where there's really no economic advantage to having plenty. Companies want scarcity.

  5. Chris Miller

    UK problem

    It's not as though the UK as a whole (or even England on its own) could ever run short of water. It's just that most of it falls in the NW and most of the people are in the SE. There's clearly no way THAT problem could ever be solved. </sarcasm>

    1. Omgwtfbbqtime

      Re: UK problem

      There's a reason Northumbrian water is an "exporter" of drinking water to the sarf.

      That would be Keilder reservoir.

    2. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: UK problem

      Absolutely. There's no way, whatsoever, that some form of convenient, already extremely well researched and implemented technology could help. Nope, definitely, absolutely not something like canals that could be used to transport water from one part of the country to another while also providing a phenomenally cheap, if slower than road truck, way to transport heavy goods (cheap on fuel). It'll never work.

      It's not as if there's another country in the world that's putting this kind of thing in place. Oh, except China.


  6. Phil Endecott

    The desalination plants would presumably be idle in the years when it did rain enough, yet you still have to pay the capital costs. It would be interesting to know what the capital costs would really be.

    I think it comes down to this choice:

    (a) make other people cut down on water use

    (b) do nothing and hope it rains next year

    (c) spend money

    Normal, i.e. short-sighted, voters will probably choose (a) and (b).

    1. ian 22

      California's aquifers are being drained as we speak. Parts of the central valley have subsided more than 10 meters as the farmers pumped the underlying aquifer dry. Aquifers are the most efficient way of storing water- no evaporation!

      Given the above, it would seem best to operate desal plants 24x7x365, rain or shine, and pump the resulting potable water directly into the aquifers until full. I'll suggest a backronym free of charge: the California Aquifer Restoration Project (CARP).

    2. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      You don't quite understand Thatcherism do you?

      Thatcherism is that you sell all the socialist schemes to bring water to the unwashed to bring money to the washed. Problem solved. Since it is legal they don't even need a laundry. It works best under compression where you change all the vehicle manufacturers into one giant lame duck and offer it to China or was it India?

      Someone had to set up monopoly in the poorer countries, they'd never cope just selling our shirts.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You're too provincial. This political method is well known around the world, and Thatcherism merely refers to the British variant. As for cleaning up, well, George Washington didn't have that surname by accident!

      2. P. Lee

        >Thatcherism is that you sell all the socialist schemes

        For all the excesses of Thatcherism, it was inspired by noticing that all the socialist schemes were state owned and had already turned into a giant lame duck. Sometimes a clear-out is the only way to get things back on track.

        Sadly the problem isn't really the economic or political model, its the corruption of those in power. Money and power almost always form an unholy alliance.

    3. Adrian Midgley 1

      It is never going to rain enough

      Relax on that.

      (And generally we have too much, or too little water; food etc. Too much is better)

  7. Epobirs

    Another factor is the water that is simply thrown away. Our sewage treatment plants produce extremely pure water that is just dumped into the ocean in all but a few locations. If the water from all the treatment facilities in California were all sent back to agriculture and residential use, it would put a big dent in the cost for creating and running a desalinization infrastructure.

  8. Marshalltown


    California is characterized by local agencies (county and city) that contract with California Water Project for a share of north state water. Monumental amounts are shipped south to the LA basin for the benefit of the Southron's lawns and pools. Jerry baby's current bright idea is to run tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta - at a cost opf billions - to move water from the Sacramento to the south without having to worry about saline incursions during drought conditions.

    The current administration doesn't want to think about desalination. Nor does it want to tell the regions that use the most water, moved the longest distances, that they should pay for it. State projects are expensed across the entire state tax base. Desalination plants would be local and have to be paid for locally.

  9. David Black

    Isn't this just a case of parasitic capitalism where the large agri-business are feeding off the public infrastructure without sufficient compensation. Impose higher taxes for water usage by farmers or production duties on their crops and you have the funding. Sure some farmers would stop producing and their costs of operation rise but that would then correctly incentivize others in more water rich areas to compete.

    As for location... Well there are quite a few fugly blights already on the California coast, simply co-locate or alternatively use some of the vast amounts of land given over to the military bases for public good.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      I'm not a Californian, but they have a rather complicated legal framework where people with water rights from before 1914 can mop up all the water in a river. That system needs to be sanitised.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "People with water rights from before 1914 can mop up all the water in a river."

        Yes, just how much of "The Mighty Colorado" actually reaches the sea these days? ;-)

      2. Charles 9

        Unfortunately, being rights, they can't be taken due to the constitutional prohibition on retroactive laws, which basically guarantees grandfathering. As long as the rights holders assert their rights, they can argue in court their rights can't be taken away without breaking Article I, Section 9.

  10. Peter Clarke 1

    Cadillac Desert

    Having just read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner I can tell you the problem would be less severe if they hadn't badly drained the aquifer. It would've made a great emergency resource. They already have to desalinate (due to over-extraction) the Colorado before it leaves the US and heads into Mexico. All major rivers in S California have at least one dam for reservoirs, some causing major environmental change including nearly killing the salmon fishing industry. Some hare brained schemes have been put forward for water from the Columbia River or even Canada's rivers.

    1. Dan Paul

      Re: Cadillac Desert

      How about using a Desal plant to purify all that waste water and pump that back to deal with the Delta Smelt, fill the aquifer and satisfy the wetlands water deficit?

      Ooops my mistake, I forgot this was California we are talking about where it's illegal to exhibit any common sense.

    2. PhilipN Silver badge

      Re: Cadillac Desert

      .. by Marc Reisner : Required reading for everyone on the planet

  11. scrubber

    US Politics

    Droughts are politically useful for those who wish to make a point about climate change. Much like the snowball a senator threw recently to disprove warming:

  12. another_vulture

    Time of day

    Here in California we have a lot of solar and wind. We have lots of spare power for some of the time each day. Solar and wind are lousy sources for base load and for peak load. However, they are great for any load that can be varied depending on available supply. The big problem with solar and wind is is energy storage, but it's quite easy to store fresh water. Another way to look at this: the desal plants can effectively act as load buffers, allowing the entire energy system to act more efficiently. From a rate-paying perspective, This usage pattern should get the lowest electricity rate. Alternatively, the power company could build the plants and sell the water.

    Salt pans have produced salt commercially at the south end of SF bay for more than century. Since a desal plant discharges high-salinity waste water, it might be possible to sell this waste water to the salt company. I doubt that the total amount of salty waste for a statewide system would have a market, but some would.

    Also, using solar and wind power for this purpose would also get help get the environmentalists on board.

  13. David Pollard

    Seawater Greenhouse

    Obviously you can't build these everywhere, but it's pretty neat when you can.

    1. MarBru

      Re: Seawater Greenhouse

      This is probably the best solution (one of anyway) the infrastructure can be built progressively and a modern reiteration of a simple and historical used form of condensation (

      These projects however work on long term bases and only underlay the real problem.

      This boils down ( :-) ) to how as a society we value collective welfare against individual interests. In other words: drought is not the point, it is only how society is able to accomplish the solutions to it that becomes the main hurdle.

  14. James 51

    Couldn't all that sunshine be used to drive the desalination process? Would evaporation and condensation be an option? Solar panels if it has to be electrical energy.

    1. Charles 9

      I think solar stills suffer two issues versus other desalination methods: they don't scale well where volume is needed, and they're inconsistent which can be a problem when you need a steadier flow.

  15. spot


    It's easy to test for interest. One year deadline, target enough to build the plant, and all those little kickstarters would own the New World Water Utility Company. Do 1% of Internet users have a spare $200 in exchange for a foot in the door?

    Or maybe the French would like to own it. They already have England's, after all.

    That's New World as in Dvořák, not Order.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Even worse case

    Vancouver has been moved to stage 3 water restrictions, no lawn sprinklers etc.

    A place synonymous with rain and yet we can't seem to cope with a 'dry' year, you have to wonder about infrastructure planning at times and if it's just an inability to anticipate or political ignorance. My money's on the politicos not wanting to spend money properly most of the time.

  17. Kev99 Silver badge

    It's really sad that a process in use for years in the Arabian peninsula isn't used because of dollars. One would think the fools in charge would look at what's being done over there and decide it's a piece of cake. FUD on a national scale, it seems.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I couldn't agree more Kev.

      In the mid to late 50s my company had several engineers out there to certify the install of reverse osmosis desal plants, most of which were supplying cities.

      The big problem appears to be the lack of knowledge of the political establishment, especially when they are being advised by members of the eco-green blob fraternity.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  18. Mike Friedman

    This is silly.

    California is full of incredibly bright people. This has been though of before (in face a large desalination plan went on line this year in San Diego and Santa Barbara brought its 1980s vintage plant out of mothballs this year). Others have been talked about.

    But what exactly would you plan to do with all of that salt? And whatever other impurities might be pulled out? It's generally mixed back with some water and put back into the ocean which is not without its impact on wildlife and ocean ecosystems.

    Desalination makes some sense in places like Israel or Saudi Arabia where water is quite scarce, and California will probably have to use it more in the future, but implying that Californians are dense and stupid because they haven't considered this is insulting and just plain wrong. It's complicated and very expensive to run destination plants. Of course if the energy is produced by solar in some way that reduces the environmental impact, but there is no such thing as a free lunch.

    British people don't always have all of the best engineering ideas in the world. Trust me, I've owned a British car (a 1969 Morris Mini Minor).

    1. bombastic bob Silver badge

      "But what exactly would you plan to do with all of that salt? And whatever other impurities might be pulled out?"

      well, in all practical sense, we're just going to put it all back where we found it in the FIRST place!

      The solution to pollution, is DILUTION! When the result is 'below minimum detectability', it is ZERO. So use a long effluent pipe, send it out to deep water, mix it with sea water along the way, and let it go, let it go, and it won't hurt any organisms [to the tune of some disney earworm, heh]

      but it wouldn't hurt to sample the water on occasion to make sure the levels of salt, etc. aren't increasing. Good engineering up front would prevent that, then occasionally monitor. No discharging inside of a harbor or bay, where water may not mix with the rest of the ocean, etc.

      And I like someone else's comment about reclaimed sewer water. They're doing that in San Diego county in a few places, jokingly called "toilet to tap". It's a great idea. Effluent from sewage treatment is probably CLEANER than what N. California sends via aqueduct.

      1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        San Diego wouldn't have a problem had the environmentalists from non San Diego regions come and voted San Diego close its power plant then the saw the drought coming and buggered off to not build fairy wind castles and glass palaces that run on sunlight and antifreeze. Suppose you kick the politician that licked their arses out of office then sue the bastards for damages.

        If you uses marsh lakes with mussel beds and reeds it will clean up effectively. I'm not sure you can convince people to drink it but most people drink Thames river water after it's been used three or four time. The trick is: Don't tell them about it.

        The trick worked in Chernobyl too, apparently it killed thousands but Russia only reported some 60 or so. They thought they were going to get away with it but the Swedes noticed it made their shoes dirty.

        1. Charles 9

          "The trick worked in Chernobyl too, apparently it killed thousands but Russia only reported some 60 or so."

          You have some independent and unbiased evidence to that effect?

  19. Nanners

    Cali is a mess

    With few bright spots. They hold us back and create evil every chance they get. Can't wait till they sink into the ocean and Vegas is beach front. This is so doable and the only ones stopping this from happening is Cali. Even I've asked my self why this isn't being done before. Sell the salt duh.

  20. earl grey

    you're missing the obvious

    The california coast is filled with spoilt weiners who are capital NIMBY-ists. They don't want anything to mess up their view, block their sun (they have laws and lawsuits about this), or ruffle their feathers. Power - wind, solar, wave. Yes, it costs some to put it in place, but easily doable when they're talking about mega-dollars of wastage on a theoretically high-speed rail (which will NEVER run high speed, nor carry enough passengers to pay its way). The state is way too bogged down in too much law to too little good effect. Unfortunately their stupidity is then rapidly passed on to other states in the form of idiotic restrictions in much the same way Texas' ability to order a million textbooks allows them to slant history and science teaching and deform small minds. Just nuke them from orbit.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Desalinization or waste-water recovery (by reverse osmosis or distillation) for CA, or anywhere else, for drinking or general use is being wildly oversold by those with an agenda. It is vastly more expensive in the mid- and long-term than being represented. All of its downsides, and honest costs of remediation, are routinely absent in promotional articles (such as this one), some by honest fools and many with conflicts of interest. Typically, one aspect of this hideously complicated multivariate problem, is given emphasis with back-of-the envelope estimates to "prove" their point, in disregard of long term probable changes in their own cost estimates, and total disregard of systematic analysis from top to bottom and side to side from beginning to end. On top of the basic biological and physical aspects (demineralization and its costly inadequate restoration schemes (re human health, crop trace-element content, and system corrosion), brine disposal and its environmental impacts, energy consumption (now and in a more expensive future), best methods (not yet fully developed even in the Middle East), etc., it's being promoted in a state with history of, and ongoing, deep political corruption, especially in its water conservation and distribution schemes. CA doesn't even know how much water it has, thanks to the un-metered agricultural takes from rivers and over 4,000 agricultural wells with vested "water rights" - trillions of gallons a year, and hasn't wanted to find out, thanks to the generous campaign contributions from agricultural interests in the state. In that environment, promoters and their political cronies will sell anything plausible to a gullible public, including long-term guarantees of profits to developers, who will make their money up front, then leaving the public holding the bag - straddled with paying for an enormously inefficient, and probably unhealthy, source of water come rain or shine.

    Additionally, the problem, in CA and the world, is not lack of drinking water, but overpopulation, and until the politicians gain the integrity to face that problem head on, all of these bandages on that cancer, will be no more effective than ghost-dancing.

    1. guyr

      Re: Hogwash

      As Siskel and Ebert used to say, two thumbs way up.

      Desalinization for human consumption has to be one of the worst ideas ever proposed. Consider:

      (1) We humans have a terrible track record for responsible resource utilization. Look at oil. 100 million years in the making, and we used up all easily accessible reserves in 100 years! Anyone ever stop to think that people living 300 years from now (if we haven't blown ourselves up) might like some of this phenomenal energy source?

      (2) Example 2 (of very many), current topic, water. In the U.S., we've drawn down the aquifers underlying the Great Plains by so much that, if we were to stop tapping them today completely, they would need 500 years to refill. And this is our bread basket! The mighty Colorado River is now so completely diverted that it no longer reaches the ocean.

      (3) Scientists believe that the oceans are the source of all life. We've already wiped out numerous species due to over-fishing. Dare we alter the composition of the oceans by extracting pure water and dumping back pure salt? Life in the ocean is incredibly sensitive to salinity.

      Many may be tempted to say we could never extract enough water to significantly affect salinity. See points (1) and (2). If we proved that we could extract pure water from the ocean in an economic fashion, the world would quickly build desalination plants by the tens of thousands. And certainly, extraction on that scale could have a calamitous effect on ocean life.

      1. Salamamba

        Re: Hogwash

        Slight error in your calculation - all the water eventually returns to the ocean as well, so overall salinity will not be affected other than as a temporary fluctuation.

        1. Charles 9

          Re: Hogwash

          But it won't return to the ocean in the same way. Some of it will come in fresh, lower local salinity while the rest of it (the waste from the desal plants) will come in too concentrated. And note that most marine life is very sensitive to local salinity.

  22. Herby


    These wonderful ideas are nice, but consider this: It will take a few years to build a nice de-sal plant and get it operational. By then the drought will be over and politicians will state that the whole thing was a waste of money. The plant gets mothballed, and some of the components are sold off to recover a bit of the massive costs. Life goes on, as a bunch of wet years pass. Then another drought comes by and everyone says "light up that nice de-sal plant we paid $$$$ for many moons ago". Then the people in charge say, sorry, we need to buy those nice filters we sold off years ago. By the time they start to think about it, and try to get the plant operational, the second drought is over.

    Wash, Rinse, Repeat.


  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    To have a solution to a problem but fail to implement it, whilst at the same time complaining about the problem, is the definition of stupidity.

  24. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    California has all that seawater - and it's tidal! Use the tidal energy to desalinate the sea water.

  25. YARR
    IT Angle

    Floating desalination plant?

    If the investment in a desalination plant cannot be justified due to uncertain future demand, why not construct a floating desalination plant and anchor it offshore? The only onshore investment needed is a power supply and a pump to send the water where it's needed. In x years time when the demand for water is satisfied, disconnect it and float it to somewhere else in the world that has a water deficit.

  26. x 7

    why is that girl sitting down to pee in the river? Doesn't she know that pollution if drinking water is bad?

    And she must be thick if she can't be bothered to lift her dress clear of the splashes - urine will ruin that red dye

  27. x 7

    is mounting desalination plants on large barges or ships and anchoring them off the coast viable?

    1. Charles 9

      (1) How do you get the desalinated water ashore in reasonable volumes to handle, say, a big metropolis like Los Angeles?

      (2) What do you do with the concentrated brine left over from desalination? And note that sea water has more than salt in it, so you can't just sell it on the open market.

  28. king_tut

    Mexico export from Baja...

    Mexico would probably find it easier to build desalination plants from a political/activist perspective. They could then ship it north, and export it to the US. Yes, all this would cost, but it may well be profitable, and be a nice export income for Mexico. Plus, it would provide Mexico some strategic strength against the US - "screw us over, and we'll turn off your water" - think Putin/Ukraine and Natural Gas.

    Of course, the corruption in Mexico may make this unfeasible, and the US may not be willing to accept the import of the water. Depending where you're shipping to/from, the price may be expensive, but, for example, South Coronado is only ~15 miles from San Diego - although construction there would be problematic from an sea-environmental (the land itself is a desert) perspective.

  29. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    It's dafter than that

    "*Strangely perhaps, the US government prefers to use British Thermal Units. In Britain, by contrast, the kilowatt-hour and its derivatives are favoured."

    It's dafter than that. My power bill is in kwh (kilowatt-hours). Heating is measured in BTUs (and the bill is in something unholy like cubic feet of natural gas...). Air conditioning capacity is measured in tons, with a typical house with central air conditioning having 1.5-3 tons of air conditioning. 1 "ton" is based on the amount of cooling per hour 1 ton of ice will produce if it melts uniformly over a 24-hour period, 11-something thousand BTUs/hour, which is rounded to 12,000 BTUs/hour. Metric or American ton? I have no idea (I won't call it a "British" ton since you have the common sense to use metric in Britain these days...)

    1. x 7

      Re: It's dafter than that

      American and British tons are different anyway - 2000 vs 2240 pounds = "short" ton vs "long" ton

  30. David Roberts

    Where has all the water gone?

    If the aquifers are nearly empty it must have gone somewhere.

    Has evaporation taken it to a different part of the globe, is it all tied up in extra living things, or has it passed into the ocean?

    Nobody seems to have mentioned this so far.

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Where has all the water gone?

      The article mentioned where most of it went: to the agricultural nexus in the heart of the state.

      1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

        Re: Where has all the water gone?

        > The article mentioned where most of it went: to the agricultural nexus in the heart of the state.

        No it didn't they had that war with the sheriff of Youtube in the Grapes of Wrath revolution. But at least the Injuns managed to escape from the Oklahoma concentration camps.

        The Colorado has been suffering from extraction for decades (maybe about the same era) and they built a giant U-shaped motorway to divert any rainwater out of lost angleiron so fast it doesn't touch the ground.

  31. guyr

    In the U.S., the aquifers are dangerously low on water because they've been over-utilized for agriculture. The water was pumped out and dumped on crops, often in a ridiculously wasteful fashion like flood irrigation; in such systems, much of the water runs off or evaporates, doing the crops little good.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Depends. How else do you grow rice, which requires flooding?

  32. David Roberts

    And the water went.......


    Having read the articles I already know that the water has been pumped up and used, mainly for agriculture. So will most others who have read the article and comments.

    So it runs off or where does the run off go, and where does the water vapour go?

    Does it all end up diluting the ocean?

    Is another part of the US or elsewhere getting extra rainfall courtesy of CA?

    Because if it is nearly all going into the ocean, it is presumably diluting the ocean to some extent - probably much the same extent as replacing it by desalination of ocean water would increase the salinity of the ocean.

    If it is changing the rainfall patterns elsewhere in the world then changing the irrigation patterns in CA will have an impact, and should be taken into consideration.

    I was just wondering if anybody had bothered to find out.

    Beer because it is warm and sunny and I'm having an Old Speckled Hen (and no, that isn't code).

  33. cortland

    Leaving out

    Leaving out the certifications and persuasion needed to build the desalination plants;

    Leaving out that concentrated brine kills marine species nearby;

    Leaving out the pipelines needed (can't tear up the landscape) and the municipal expense incurred (we won't pay higher taxes);

    Be it ever so cheap to actually get the salt out; it's neither cheap nor fast to get there from here.

    "Don't worry, boy, I know the trick,

    And to you I'm gonna show it.

    If you want your boomerang to come back,

    Well first you've got to... throw it."

    1. I. Aproveofitspendingonspecificprojects

      Re: Leaving out

      > Leaving out that concentrated brine kills marine species nearby

      You do know that when you get to the ecological limit you can stop, don't you?

      Or am I dealing with a Usanian?

  34. Jorba


    They could stop growing monsoon crops in the desert.

    California rice?

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Alternatively...

      IIRC, the central valley part of California isn't exactly a desert. Plus rice needs water control no matter where you grow it.

  35. Scott Sinnock


    Finally some sanity in the matter. Adapt and innovate to climate change rather than use it as an excuse to regulate and tax.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Finally

      Since when has sanity been a continual requirement in a legislature?

      And there's still the danger of things degenerating beyond the biological human limits (say, consistent wet-bulb temperatures of over 37ºC).

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Big dam.

    Just build a big dam around the mouths of rivers as they enter the sea.

    Water which is allowed to enter the sea is wasted.

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Big dam.

      Except some lifeforms rely on the brackish water you get at estuaries (the borderline zone between the river and the ocean), making them some pretty important and pretty sensitive environmental areas. Anyway, you forget the Colorado River, which is already overtapped to the point it usually doesn't make it to the Gulf of California.

  37. Tom 13

    One might think that the muscular spirit of US techno-capitalism would find some way around this problem.

    Most other states that would happen. You're talking Kali here though. If it ain't an environmentalist/community organizer's wet dream of government intervention, it ain't happening.

  38. Kriilin

    How about building large scale solar stills in the Mojave Desert? The only energy required is for pumping seawater, fresh water and brine. Sometimes low-tech is the best.

    Just to add: I bet there's more than one engineering grad in California or the Middle East who's done a thesis on exactly that.

    1. Charles 9

      They only work during the day when there's sun out, they'll probably interfere with local fauna, and the infrastructure needed to pump the seawater and brine is bound to be prohibitive. Not to mention there's still the issue of what do with the concentrate, which is basically toxic at this point and has to be disposed carefully to prevent ecological issues. And no, you can't dessicate it completely as there's more than salt in that brine.

      And oh yeah, there's that BIG big problem...of SCALE. You think solar stills can provide millions of gallons a day to Los Angeles County?

      1. Kriilin

        I have no idea, and I sense neither do you. If you have a link to a study, I'd be happy to read it. I realize they only work during the day, but unlike the grid, there's no need to have them produce 24/7. As for the brine, it's only concentrated seawater, one would have to control salinity at the discharge point. In this case, dilution is acceptable.

        1. Charles 9

          I don't have any concrete numbers at present, but design considerations alone can present challenges. For example, what is the world's largest greenhouse in terms of floor area and in terms of overall volume (a solar still essentially needs a design similar to a greenhouse, especially on the ceiling)? Second, how well will a batch process with labor-intensive between-batch cleanup (a solar still needs to be periodically cleared of its deposited minerals, which don't just include salt) work against a more-or-less-continuous demand for clean water (not just among farmers, but also among a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles which basically never sleeps)? Third, just how much sunlight will you need to evaporate X gallons of water? For a frame of reference, near Los Angeles is the world's largest solar-thermal energy plant in the world, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility. It generates 392MW (e or t, no one says) over a span of some 1400+ ha. Sounds like a lot until you realize they say this'll power about 100,000 homes. Los Angeles County alone has over ten million homes according to the 2010 US Census. Oh, and BTW, what about the energy needed to move all this water and waste to and from the desert (and please note, most of California's desert is actually elevated several hundred feet—in comparison Death Valley and the Salton Sea are pretty small areas—which means you'll be pumping seawater uphill)?

  39. dubious

    thermal de-sal

    If you already have thermal power stations, then even after the 2nd or 3rd stage turbines the steam still has heat to help boil off seawater, and as you need to cool the steam off anyway the combined power and water plant can work out cheaper overall than RO.

    Combine that with using TSE for agriculture and city planting irrigation.

    The nice thing about TSE is that as the city grows, you get more of it. You can see this in action in Oman where the trees along the side of the highways reach further out of town every year.

    The ME's municipal planting is almost exclusively watered with TSE, since they have a decent amount of it and Islam apparently has some restrictions against using it for crops (I have been told).

    1. Charles 9

      Re: thermal de-sal

      "If you already have thermal power stations, then even after the 2nd or 3rd stage turbines the steam still has heat to help boil off seawater, and as you need to cool the steam off anyway the combined power and water plant can work out cheaper overall than RO."

      That's a consideration, yes, and I'm sure power plant designers are keen to extract every last bit of heat out of their boilers (or at least until Diminishing Returns kicks in), but I think this will work only if the power station is close to a source of salt water. Otherwise, the pumping costs will likely tip it below break-even. Plus there's the issue of cleaning up the byproducts over time.

      "The nice thing about TSE is that as the city grows, you get more of it. You can see this in action in Oman where the trees along the side of the highways reach further out of town every year."

      You would think that your sewage treatment costs would rise along with the population. You'll need to increase your capacity so that you can treat more sewage at a time, and this may also involve additional capital expenditures (more tanks, etc.). How will does TSE scale with population growth?

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