Let's Take Holistic View of Desal Proposals

Heal the Bay chief executive Ruskin Hartley says it doesn’t do much good to fight over the specifics of particular desalination projects.

Wednesday was a big day for us at Heal the Bay. After years of work, days spent reviewing environmental documents, and five hours at a contentious hearing, the proponents of a massive desalination plant in Huntington Beach withdrew their project. The writing was on the wall — their project, as presented, was not going to be approved.  Of course, the project has not gone away. Not yet anyway.

We’re not opposed to desalination. We believe other, more cost-effective and energy efficient measures, like water reuse and conservation, should be maximized first. The body of research on best practices for desal is still growing, and we recognize that it could be a tool to meet future water needs, when used carefully in the right setting. The Huntington Beach project was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and at a massive scale (the largest proposed plant in the Western Hemisphere). You can read more about the hearing and the issues in a recent blog post by my Heal the Bay colleague Dana Murray.

This week’s desal debate did have me drawing similarities to my work for years in the redwoods. My experience has been that any time you start to focus down on one patch of dirt (or forest, or water), the temperature rapidly rises and agreement can be elusive. If you can step back and look at the issue more holistically and from a broader geographic perspective, you can back into an agreement that works for all. 

It reminds me of watching my two older boys play in the woods. While there may be sticks all around, when it comes down to it, they both want the same one. It’s tough to share one stick. But step back and look at the forest and there’s a way.

To take a broader example: an aggressive timber harvest plan adjacent to a beloved park is always going to be contentious. Especially when it involves ancient redwoods. But pull back a bit and look at how and where to meet our need for timber and park protection, and you may have the basis for an agreement. Similarly, a  massive desalination plant near ecologically important places, like marine protected areas and wetlands, is always going to be given a tough look (we and are colleagues will make sure of that).

It’s time to step back and look more holistically and regionally at our water needs.  Desalination — as part of a portfolio of local water supply, smart conservation, and re-use — may well be appropriate if smart technologies are employed and siting doesn’t significantly degrade marine life or habitat. But to my knowledge, the question of places to best site such desal plants has never been asked (let alone answered).

Meanwhile, we are left fighting over particular projects. I for one feel our time would be better spent figuring out a long-term solution that protects our bay and coastal waters, while providing reliable water at reasonable cost.