A Conservative Attempt to Conserve

By Alec Laube imrs

On Wednesday, April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown announced his attempt to address the state’s worst drought in its history. With NASA’s recently released report that California has only about one year of water stored, and with drought conditions only getting worse, it was certainly the time for some measure of action to be taken. Brown’s new executive order, which mandates a 25% reduction of water usage, is the first plan involving mandated usage reduction in the state’s history and gives the state a chance at combating the problem that we face. Water restrictions can be beneficial in making sure that we have water to be used in the future and in keeping water affordable for the people of California.

Governor Brown’s plan is no doubt a huge step in the right direction. The issue of water conservation has been a constant topic in California’s politics for many years but a long-term viable solution has yet to be found. However, we must look for more permanent solutions as drought conditions continue to worsen. One idea brought up from time to time is the idea of taking water from the ocean and converting it to drinkable water that can be used for everyday use and agriculture. This process is called desalination. Currently, three small desalination plants are open in California, with a fourth to open in Carlsbad, California in 2016. This plant is being looked at as a “test run” for the rest of state to see if desalination is a viable option to help remedy the water crisis.

The problem with desalination is its immense cost. For the Carlsbad plant, it will take two gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of potable water. On top of that, “desalinated water typically costs about $2,000 an acre-foot,” or in other words as much water as a family of five uses annually. The cost is also “double that of water obtained from building a new reservoir or recycling wastewater, according to a 2013 study from the state Department of Water Resources,” and nearly four times as much as using standard conservation methods such as drip irrigation on farms or providing rebates to homeowners who use efficient toilets.

One might argue that the costs will lower over time as technology continues to become more advanced, but will these plants still be needed when the drought ends? Desalination plants like the Carlsbad plant are often built in times of crisis, meaning they are typically given up on when drought conditions lessen, with the 1991 Santa Barbara plant as one such example. This plant was finished in 1991, but was shut down and abandoned after the city’s water problems were temporarily fixed. Will this happen again once if and when California’s short-term drought problems are fixed?

Therefore, although it is important to find new methods of combatting the drought, desalinization brings about too many questions to be viable as an option for the current drought. Until another alternative measure is proposed, Brown’s mandate for a reduction of water usage is the best step in the short-term. California’s largest current problem is the shrinking water supply, and this mandate will hopefully serve to enable it to find a long-term solution to the problem. Whether that solution is greater regulation of water usage, desalination, or an alternative option, remains to be seen.