Ocean desalination is a political plot

November 7, 2016
Brad Snook

Brad Snook


Since this is an election season, the newspapers have been filled with promotions of ocean desalination as the “silver bullet” for resolving our water shortage. Supporters of desalination include Jordan Cunningham, Adam Hill, Richard Waller, and others. Citizens and voters should be aware, however, that desalination is always an expensive proposition, and Diablo Canyon desalination is no exception.

Here are the interests who would benefit from ocean desalination:

1.   PG&E, as it repurposes Diablo’s desalination plant infrastructure after decommissioning its nuclear power plant.

2.   Water wasters, most of them groundwater users, who get water at a much lower cost and won’t be paying for desalinated water.

3.   Developers taking advantage of the opportunity to build without addressing the challenges of drought-related restrictions.

Here are those who would suffer from ocean desalination:

1.   Marine ecosystem from desalination intake and outfall.

2.   Local energy supply, because desalination is energy intensive.

3.   Urban water users, who would pay the bulk of project development, implementation, and distribution costs.

For every two gallons of ocean water intake, approximately one gallon is waste. After 2025 (Diablo’s projected decommissioning), the discharge from Diablo’s desalination plant won’t be mixed with billions of gallons of power plant discharge. So the salinity of the ocean discharge would be much higher than it is now.

The plant’s intake, the outfall, the technology of the plant, the public distribution, and the sites for all of the infrastructure would need upgrades, new permits, design, and construction. The permits would need to come from the State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission, among others. At any point, the regulating agency could ask for CEQA environmental review and inquire as to whether better alternatives are available. Most of the time, conservation and/or reclamation are superior to desalination.

A recent article summarizes the challenges and elevated financial costs of ocean desalination here.

Furthermore, Diablo Canyon’s desalination project is unique, as it faces more challenges than other “desal” projects. Specifically, the ocean outfall is near a marine protected area (at Point Buchon). Studies would be necessary to show how marine life would be affected by the increased salinity from the desalination plant’s outfall.

Also, a health study would be needed to show whether distribution of water from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant site is safe for the environment and the community.

Given the existence of other, better alternatives, the empty promises of Diablo Desalination are without merit. Desalination primarily benefits special interests, including developers, while negatively impacting the environment and residents. If you are an urban water user, you should question whether Diablo desalination is a viable solution or simply a ploy.

We ask the community to support leaders who are instead committed to common-sense conservation solutions, including water reclamation.

Brad Snook is the Surfrider Foundation Program Coordinator, Know Your H2O. The Surfrider Foundation is a grassroots nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of oceans, waves and beaches through a powerful activist network.


I assume the melting glaciers caused by global warming/climate change are not frozen salt water. That being said just how much extra unsalted water is being added to the ocean to physically raise it? It must be an astronomical number of cubic feet of ice melt making the ocean that is no flooding low lying areas and making the waters less safe for the species thriving in the oceans. It would only make sense that the increase of salt from a desal process would then offset the amount of fresh water dumping into the oceans daily hence making everything just like its intended to be. With regard to reuse from wastewater plants, yes, this is the future.


The salinity increase is an impact to the local area of the ocean outfall. One option to mitigating localized impacts of desalination pollution is to spread the outfall over a larger area than 1 discharge point. However, the footprint of such a project just substitutes one impact with another. It also spreads out the area where potential impacts need to be studied.


Brad has studied this in depth for many years and brings a sensible and well-informed approach to our water problems. He touches on it, but doesn’t elaborate – the cost of purchasing the land and creating the pipelines to transport water from Diablo to other communities could easily come to $100m. It makes much more sense to capture storm water and use our sewer plants and refineries nearer to population centers.


“Given the existence of other, better alternatives,”

Please explain in detail, the proven alternatives.


Pelican, one sewer plant alone can create more potable water on our doorstep at 1/3 of the price than Diablo desal. We have several countywide.

We have two oil plants pouring cities worth of water into the ocean that could be recharging the basin.

Stormwater could be directed to sewer plants to be cleaned up.

We can raise the levels of Lopez so it can store more water.

We can re-evaluate dams locations.

We can recapture rainwater lot by lot.

All of this can be done much more quickly than desal because it doesn’t involve the same extensive Coastal Commission approvals and is much less expensive.

How’s that for starters?


We do have a water shortage, but desalination is not the solution, less usage is the only solution. We need to stop all new residential and other lodging construction immediately. We also need to find a way to reduce usage by those who have free access to the underground basin. If we had real leaders running the government there would already be a plan in place. But the only plan our elected officials have is to get re-elected. Vote out all incumbents!


I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Diablo Canyon desal water for public use is a ridiculous pipe dream. Meaning whomever thinks it will happen must be smoking something. It will never pass regulatory review even if it was a good idea, which it isn’t.


It has nothing to do with regulatory review. The decommissioning plan, as licensed, requires that the Diablo Canyon site (which includes the desal plant) be returned to “pasture land” to 3 feet down (so that it is plowable). The only portion of the site that is not covered by this is the ISFSI facility (Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation).

BTW, there is a very legal reason why the first word in the title of this facility is INDEPENDANT.


Thank you for the clarification. It only reinforces my point though. Such a thing will never happen. Don’t waste time or money dreaming of a pipeline to ease water shortage problems.


Diablo Canyon desal isn’t being repurposed, it will be closed along with the plant.


Coleridge. “Water water everywhere… and not a drop to drink.”

California is arid. We don’t have a drought problem. We’ve got a water management problem. We need more and bigger reservoirs and to stop allowing it to flow into the ocean to save some crappy fish. And the people who are hurt most are not the entitled living along the coast and urban areas. Jeez.


Slosum nails it. Desperate hope yields to reality.


Suggest we eliminate golf courses and the nut orchards which exist solely to export produce to Asia before we start killing the native fish.


Desalination is the answer. As far as water reclamation goes, you can’t reclaim water that you don’t have in the first place. You need a reliable supply of water for reclamation to work. It’s not that hard to understand!


Reclamation means you keep using the same water over and over again. It most certainly does work. If we could constantly reclaim, say 75% of our waste water and only “lose” 25% of it, we’d only need to have a fresh water source for 25% of what we use. Sounds like gold to me — gold-colored water. When Naci dries up, I’ll bet the politicos will try to sell reclamation for human consumption instead of watering golf courses and parking strips in strip malls.


Good points, Ricky2. If you look at the municipalities, they have a diversified water supply. The 5 Cities area has State Water, Lopez Lake, and groundwater. They have decreased their outdoor water use by up to 30% by retro-fitting appliances and replacing water-wasting landscaping with drought tolerant options. There’s still more to do. But, their conservation efforts will provide more water for the future! If conservation saving is maintained (even during rainy years) and we don’t expand the number of water users, a greater percentage will be stored in Lopez and in the ground, and a greater percentage will be captured by the sewer system and reclaimed for agricultural use, for groundwater injection, for playing fields and cemeteries.

How much water escapes the sewage system of the Five Cites through ocean outfall right now — Almost 4 million gallons per day!

Get a grip, “taxpayer”. They are coming for your wallet and compromising our marine ecosystem and fishery. The more you know about more practical alternatives, the better we will all be in the future.


Barriers already and they are only thinking about. Welcome to SLO the environmental capital for whatever.