LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The California coastline, a seemingly limitless supply of ocean is at the forefront of a lot of resistance statewide to turn the Pacific salt water into drinking water.
Just ask Michelle Peters, an environmental engineer who grew up in Las Vegas and lives in San Diego, CA. An environmental engineer by training, Peters works for the giant water-treatment plant developer Poseidon at their desalination facility in Carlsbad.
“It’s very complicated,” Peters told the 8 News Now Investigators. “I definitely understand the Nevada side more from the residential perspective, growing up there.”
From the saltwater perspective, Peters knows desalination is a hard sell in a lot of California. The permitting process alone took some 20 years and the desalination process itself is very expensive. However, it is on the panoply of options that those fighting to end the war over the Colorado River can use to try and preserve that limited supply of water. And also: it works.
“It works extremely well,” Peters said. “We’re producing some of the highest quality drought-proof water. We’re providing 10 percent of the San Diego region’s water supply here.”
The Carlsbad plant – officially named the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant – had a lot working in its favor that a lot of sites don’t necessarily have. It abuts the Pacific Ocean and does not interfere with any residential beachfront property, which can be a major hurdle for cities and towns trying to build a desalination facility.
“Generally, California likes to protect their coastline, likes to protect their beach,” Bill Hasencamp, the Metropolitan Water District’s manager of Colorado River resources said. The M.W.D. supplies water to 19 million people in southern California.
Hasencamp said successful desalination efforts have used the sites of existing power plants instead of building a new structure and “intake,” which can be unsightly.
“But people are concerned about their oceans and so … the permitting process is a little bit more challenging,” Hasencamp said.
About a half-hour down the road from Carlsbad, in the oceanside city of Dana Point, another engineer is overseeing another desalination project.
Rick Shintaku is overseeing the operations of a desalination plant in the early stages of development. It will cost $140 million to build and some $6 million to run if the plant goes online in 2028, as anticipated.
“The low-cost water supply solutions are gone,” Shintaku said. “All that’s left are the higher-cost water supply solutions.”
The Dana Point plant was roundly rejected by local politicians until it finally found municipal approval last October. At full throttle, Shintaku expects to be pumping out five million gallons a day, That amount can solve the water needs of residents in Dana Point and some of the neighboring towns.
“One of our goals is to try to help with that solution,” Shintaku said. “And we feel that even at this small scale, it could further the technology of ocean water desalination, which could be used in a larger scale.”
Shintaku, at the outset of his career some three decades ago, was tasked with tracking the Colorado River water for his position at the time in Anaheim. He understands the complexities – and the severity – of the drought and its impact on the Colorado River.
“There’s not a magic bullet that’s going to take care of everything,” Shintaku said.
That’s why, he said, cities and towns have engineers considering diversifying their water sources.
“And that’s why I think you’re going to hear repeatedly from the water industry that you have to invest in different supplies, like your financial portfolio,” Shintaku said.
To that end, Hasencamp, the southern California water expert, agrees.
“There will be more desalinization, but it’s not the panacea to solve all the problems of our region,” Hasencamp said. “I think the first choice is water recycling.”