California Forum

A billion-dollar boondoggle to increase water supply in California

The Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Southern California opened in 2015 and cost $1 billion.
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant in Southern California opened in 2015 and cost $1 billion. New York Times file

As former Sen. Barbara Boxer noted in her op-ed “South state desalination project is a ‘no-brainer’ ” (Viewpoints, April 30), California is facing a hotter and drier future. In order to keep our communities and economy thriving, we need to develop smart and reliable local water supplies. Fortunately, we can meet long-term needs without resorting to billion-dollar boondoggles like the proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant.

There is a reason desalination companies are spending millions of dollars in lobbying. Proposals like the Huntington Beach plant can’t stand on their own merit. Desalinated water costs twice as much as imported water, and up to 8 times as much as harvesting the rain that has fallen all around us lately.

The high cost means big profits for Wall Street water companies like Poseidon. But what about customers that will be stuck with the tab? In Orange County, Poseidon wants to lock ratepayers into a 50-year contract that would force them to buy desalinated water even in wet years. That will drive up utility bills at a time when many families are struggling to make ends meet.

We are lucky to live in a time of tremendous innovation, when there are better water solutions than costly dams or desalination plants. Those mega projects, with big environmental impacts to match their price tags, are old news. Twenty-first century water solutions are affordable, energy efficient and climate resilient.

California has rules to ensure new desalination plants minimize environmental impacts and address a real need. The Poseidon proposal fails on both counts. It would hurt sea life by sucking up baby fish and eggs and pollute coastal waters with chemical-laden brine. It would also require vast amounts of energy when California is working to kick fossil fuels. Finally, it’s an unnecessary expense since Orange County’s own water plan shows it can meet all water needs through 2040.

At the end of the day, Poseidon can hire former senators to lobby, but even politicians with previously green credentials know they can’t change the facts: We don’t need their costly water. It’s a bad deal, and we have better alternatives. Indeed, a “no-brainer.”

Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is CEO of the Leonard DiCaprio Foundation. He can be reached via his assistant at