To prevent water shortages, California must embrace desalination

California has long been at the forefront of worldwide environmental leadership. Under our landmark law, Assembly Bill 32, we are slashing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

We lead the way in recycling, with some of the strictest requirements on earth. Our solar industry is thriving. Silicon Valley is creating the most innovative zero-emissions vehicles ever imagined. And Gov. Gavin Newsom is committed to taking our environmental leadership to the next level.

However, in one key respect, California is lagging behind many other parts of the world. Climate change is causing drought and water shortages everywhere, but California has been slow to adopt a solution that over 120 countries are using: desalination.

Around the world, filtered seawater is emerging as an important source of freshwater. The Middle East – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain – is leading the way, with over 50 percent of the world’s current desalination capacity. Israel generates over 55 percent of its drinking water through desalination.

How does desalination work best? When it’s done right, it meets three criteria.


First, many state-of-the-art desalination projects use “slant wells.” Slant wells are drilled at an angle to capture seawater flowing through the sandy floor of the ocean. Regulators prefer slant wells where feasible over “open ocean” intake systems because they eliminate potential damage to sea life.

Second, the best desalination projects include water recycling, conservation, and storage. This way, wastewater from agricultural runoff and storm water can be filtered, stored and reused.

Paul Kelley Head shot.jpg
Paul Kelley

Third, the best desalination projects are public-private partnerships. Why? Because the private sector usually has more experience handling some parts of these projects – for example, financing and building desalination apparatus – but the public sector has more long-term experience handling the water recycling and storage elements. Also, a blend of public and private financing keeps construction costs lower. It also keeps water rates down.

A California project that meets all three criteria that was unanimously approved by the California Public Utilities Commission last September. This project, on the Monterey Peninsula, was analyzed and reviewed for seven years at every step by federal, state and local agencies.

In approving this project, the CPUC acknowledged what desalination experts have said for years: Monterey Peninsula is the perfect place for California’s newest, most cutting-edge desalination project. The area is suffering from all of the state’s main water-related problems: depleted groundwater, infrequent rainfall or periods of drought and reduced supply of surface water.

The Monterey desalination project will address these chronic issues and solve Monterey’s water shortage.

There’s one last hurdle. The local government in the City of Marina is trying to block the project with a last-minute legal challenge. CalDesal is opposed to this challenge because, in a state where water shortages will likely become a much bigger problem in the future, desalination is a key part of the solution. It’s time for this project to move forward.

When it comes to the environment, California has never been satisfied with business as usual. We lead the world in technology, adapting to climate change, protecting the environment and providing safe, clean drinking water. Desalination should be no exception.

The Golden State should be the undisputed leader in progressive, climate-friendly water supply solutions. The completion of the Monterey project will serve as an example to the rest of the world – with California leading the way once again.

Paul Kelley is the executive director of CalDesal, the state’s leading advocacy group in support of water desalination.