With the Pacific Ocean in its front yard, it’s hard to imagine the city of
San Diego, California, USA going dry. But the city suffers from the same
scarcity of fresh water that plagues many arid regions of the Western
United States—which it solves by piping in fresh water from a delta
upstate. Now, faced with increasing local demand and greater strains on
importable supplies, the San Diego County Water Authority is tapping
the ocean to provide its drinking water.
But, as is always the case with salty oceans, there’s water, water
everywhere, but not a drop to drink—yet.
The US$1 billion Carlsbad desalination project will create the largest
seawater desalination facility ever constructed in the
Western Hemisphere, capable of producing 50 million
gallons (189 million liters) of drinking water per day.
Other drought-prone regions have already
embraced desalination technology, which can turn
two gallons ( 7. 5 liters) of seawater into one gallon ( 3. 8 liters) of potable drinking water via reverse
osmosis. But the United States has largely shied away
from desalination facilities. Compared to the price of
transporting water from neighboring cities or counties, such plants have proven prohibitively expensive
to build and operate. The only other comparable
project in the United States—a facility half the size of
the Carlsbad project that opened in Tampa, Florida
in 2007—was hamstrung by delays, development problems and flawed financing.
That makes Carlsbad something of a make-or-break
project for those hoping to see desalination gain traction in U.S. water markets.
“There’s no doubt there are a lot of eyes on this project,” says Peter
MacLaggan, senior vice president at Poseidon Resources, the Carlsbad,
California, USA water-resources company constructing and managing
The Carlsbad project offers a chance to prove that desalination is
not the white elephant its critics make it out to be, but rather a viable
component of future regional water portfolios. But failure to deliver on
either its technological or financial promises could derail other potential
projects in California before they get underway.
there are a
lot of eyes