Public funding for desalination projects dries up in California, but private investments are still flowing.

WHO: California Department of Water Resources
PROGRAM: Proposition 50 desalination research grants
PASSED: November 2002
BUDGET: $50 million

THE LATEST: Nearly a decade ago, in the midst of a three-year drought, California voters passed the Water Security, Clean Drinking Water, Coastal and Beach Protection Act of 2002, or Proposition 50. The grant program, administered by the California Department of Water Resources, provided $50 million for researching desalinating sea-water and brackish water.

The funding was slated to support 24 projects in 2005 and 23 in 2006, including construction, research and development, and feasibility studies. But when the recession forced the state to cut nonessential spending, the desalination funds were frozen before all of the projects began.

“Proposition 50 projects had two strikes against them: funding and rainfall,” says Nikolay Voutchkov, president of Water Globe Consulting and former senior vice president of Poseidon Resources Corp. “Drought is no longer pressing, and there's political pressure to focus on more immediate issues.”

Although public funding has evaporated, private investors have kept several of the state's desalination projects alive. While they explore different technologies, each focuses on energy efficiency and protecting marine life — top concerns of environmentalists.

Ongoing efforts include desalination facilities in the following areas:

Sand City — treats up to 600,000 gallons of seawater per day with reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection. Opened in 2010. Operated by California American Water Co.

Redondo Beach — the small .5-mgd demo plant will test membrane pretreatment and ultra-filtration techniques through 2012. An energy recovery system recirculates reverse osmosis pressure to cut energy use in half. Owned by the West Basin Municipal Water District.

Carlsbad — colocated with the Encina Power Generation Station to combine water and energy resources. It will process 50 mgd through reverse osmosis membrane separation. Target date: 2014. Developed by Poseidon Resources Corp.

Santa Cruz — 4.5 mgd facility uses a wedgewire intake screen to reduce impingement (pressing against the screen) and entrainment (collecting larvae) of marine life. Target date: 2014. Project led by the Santa Cruz Water Department and Soquel Creek Water District.

Monterey Bay — the 10-mgd facility processes brackish water from an aquifer with a direct ocean connection. This avoids open ocean intake and reduces impact on marine life. Target date: 2015. Project led by the Marina Coast Water District and Monterey County Water Resources Agency; operated by California American Water Co.

While desalination efforts are progressing more slowly than anticipated, Voutchkov sees a silver lining in the cloudy economic forecast. “Now that the cost of drinking water is rising faster than the cost of inflation, it's becoming attractive to venture capitalists,” he says. By advancing the technology, private investors may help close the price gap between desalinating seawater and using river and groundwater.

He anticipates desalination costs to improve between 15% to 20% over the next three to five years, based on three factors. First, the technology will be available commercially and therefore less expensive. By that time, the U.S. economy is expected to improve, which will encourage further investment. Finally, when large-scale desalination facilities such as Carlsbad are successful, they will inspire investors to open more facilities at a faster rate.

To read the original article that appeared in the September 2007 issue, “Sea of life,” click here.