Regulating Seawater Desalination in California

July 15, 2015

The Water Report


Drought continues to grip California. While Californians are working hard to conserve the limited available water resources, dire long-term projections about the impact of climate change and the possibility of a “mega-drought” have shifted the public’s attention to seeking out new sources of water. In other words, policymakers are now focused on how we can “increase the pie” when it comes to water supply. Seawater desalination presents a viable option to provide California with additional water resources. Permitting of desalination facilities in California, however, requires that various local, state, and federal agencies address a multitude of environmental concerns under a broad array of statutes and regulations. An overview of the various regulatory steps associated with the permitting of coastal desalination facilities are discussed below.


California Reacts to Dwindling Water Resources

For decades, California has faced increasing pressure on its limited water resources due to growing population, agricultural demands, and natural resource protection. Widespread drought in the western United States has recently added substantially to this pressure. After several years of drought conditions, California State Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in January 2014. Drought conditions have persisted since the emergency declaration, and California’s 2014 water year, ending on September 30, 2014, was the third driest in 119 years of record-keeping. It was also the warmest year on record according to the US Geological Service. Measurements taken by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) in April 2015 found that the Sierra snowpack measured only five percent of historic averages. This is particularly concerning because the runoff from snowpack has historically provided about one-third of the water used by California’s cities and farms.

Groundwater has served as a dependable renewable resource that can provide backup water supplies in periods of drought. Unfortunately, groundwater has been rapidly depleted in California as pumping has dramatically increased during the drought. Until recently, State policy allowed essentially unlimited groundwater extraction by property owners. As a result of increased groundwater extraction, water tables have reportedly dropped by more than a hundred feet in some locations, ground surface is sinking (subsidence) by as much as a foot per year in other areas, and shallow wells are running dry. Groundwater resources will likely take years to recharge, even with a return to average precipitation levels. Looking further down the road, climate change may further exacerbate the situation, even if drought conditions recede. Projections indicate that climate change will result in less snowfall and adversely change the timing of runoff from the Sierras to earlier in the year.

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First published in The Water Report, No. 137, July 15, 2015.  Posted with permission.