Take ocean, add power, get fresh water

October 24, 2013 

Water is California’s and, above all, Cambria’s leading 21st Century problem. Many related issues lie beneath this umbrella, as some of the statistics and discussion to follow will expose.

To establish context, Carol and I farm just east of town and, even though we can’t vote for Cambria Community Services District, we consider ourselves Cambrians. As farmers, we use lots of water but, conservative by nature, we probably don’t use as much as you might think; about eight acre-feet (2.6 million gallons) per year for roughly 20 acres of crops. We also operate our own “water company” with two wells, miles of plastic pipe and 20,000 gallons of water storage. Therefore, I don’t have the option to call someone when I wake up to no water — I suspect the Greeks were the first to say “stuff happens.”

When I was a boy there were about 10 million of us in California. Today, there are nearly 40 million. While a majority of the U.S. east of the Mississippi receives at least 50 inches of rainfall per year, in the west the average is less than 20. Yet, the average Californian uses about four times as much water as his or her cousins in Boston and Great Britain and pays less than most Britons for this 600 liters per day.

California is well known as America’s produce capital and 80 percent of our state’s water once went to producing crops. As the urban population has grown, and, while environmental demand has also increased, irrigation has become more efficient; today the statewide total for irrigating crops consumes less than 50 percent of the state’s water.

Looking across the country, domestic water use is interestingly often inversely proportional to rainfall. For instance, the average Bostonian suffers through many gloomy days with over 100 inches of rainfall annually, but uses only about 40 gallons of water per day. By contrast, for folks in Phoenix daily use is well over 100 gallons with less than 20 inches of rainfall. Despite use differences, residents of both cities pay about the same per month for their water.

These statistics considered, I know that Cambrians are by-and-large more frugal in their water use than the average American, but we continue to have water problems during dry spells…

More people x more regulation = not enough water

We are dependent on groundwater, which, in turn, is dependent on rainfall. That’s why I decided to challenge the CCSD and all Cambrians with this letter.

Our community seems stuck in the conservation mode. We’ve done well, but it’s not enough. There is yet more that can be done with conservation. As a board member of the local Resource Conservation District, I’d be happy to sponsor a community meeting with experts on conservation. But, conservation alone will never be sufficient, given our circumstances.

On the other hand, San Luis Obispo County is uniquely positioned with the only nuclear power generation in the state at Diablo Canyon. What’s more, this is the only unit in the U.S. that depends on an existing desalination plant, which provides cooling water for the reactors. Larger cogeneration plants have been sited around the world in arid and semi-arid coastal regions to provide large populations with potable water. In some cases desalination is those people’s only source of water. The vast majority of these are coupled with fossil fuel plants, but increasingly nuclear plants provide the required energy. Interestingly, Morro Bay has a functional desalination plant, which is currently not operating, and a conventional energy plant.

Here’s the rub: even though such facilities can provide an abundance of high quality domestic water, it will be pricey. And, we Americans prefer a bargain. Unfortunately, given the statistics I quoted earlier, we are at the point where there’s insufficient water to service needs. And all new sources of water will be costly.

Mythical sources of so-called supplemental water abound in water-poor California. Everyone wants more water, and competition is tremendous.  Unfortunately, we will always lose the money race. State water is an example — when you need it, so does everyone else. And, though Cambria sees abundant pure and fresh surface water flow through the town and into the ocean most winters, given the regulatory environment, it is extremely unlikely that we will ever be able to capture any of it.

By contrast, oceans contain 97 percent of all water, and we happen to be within walking distance of a really big one. I’m nonetheless still waiting for the whopping “Wow!” The only outpouring I’ve heard is, “Wow that’s expensive.” So, Cambrians need to listen to these words: We can solve this problem with an investment that, though sizeable today, will seem small in a few years.

I’m fond of recalling that the first time my father used an indoor toilet was when he joined the army in 1942, both because it’s true, and because it so contrasts America’s prevailing lifestyle in 2013. He studied by oil lamps during high school, as well. Even though by the time I came along my grandparents had indoor plumbing, my grandmother still cooked over a wood stove.

Just as that tremendous change in quality of life brought about by rural electrification and associated technology, desalination will liberate us from our dependence on groundwater, with all the associated problems. It won’t be cheap, but the technology’s cost will come down with investment and experience.

A large co-generation desalination plant co-located at Diablo Canyon could supplement water countywide, and, in the several communities like Cambria, ensure no future water shortages. The cost of the plant and associated plumbing would be considerable, but we likely could make much use of existing infrastructure, for example, reverse pumping using the Nacimiento water pipeline during the winter.

Cambria can get this started, and we need to do it now. I would be happy to meet with any group to explore this proposal further.

Mike Broadhurst is a farmer on Santa Rosa Creek Road and co-manages the Cambria Farmers Market.

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