Off the coast of San Diego, one of the largest desalination plants in the world is under construction. Scheduled to open in 2016, it will provide about 50 million gallons of fresh water per day for local use.

That’s less than ten percent of the region’s total water use. The rest will continue to come from distant sources like the Colorado River. But with the population growing and likely future droughts caused by climate change, San Diego is eager for reliable, local water — even if it means a rate increase for consumers.

Luster: “It comes at a cost. It’s the most expensive water source we have here in California.”

That’s Tom Luster, Senior Environmental Scientist at the California Coastal Commission. He says desalination may sound attractive, but it has drawbacks. In addition to being expensive, it’s energy-intensive and can have unwanted environmental impacts.

In San Diego, for example, the Coastal Commission found that the project would suck in and kill some plankton, fish, and other small marine life. So to compensate, the city required the desalination company to create roughly sixty acres of wetland habitat in a nearby bay.

It’s a tradeoff, but one that a thirsty city like San Diego believes is worth it.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Photo: Simulation of the desalination plant under construction (Source: San Diego County Water Authority)

More Resources
Carlsbad Desalination Project
Nation’s largest ocean desalination plant goes up near San Diego; Future of the California coast?
The Impacts of Relying on Desalination for Water

Diana Madson

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...