One of Aesop’s fables is about a dog that found a bone nearly as big as he could carry. The dog trotted home to gnaw on his prize, but on the way, he caught sight of his reflection in a stream. Convinced that he was seeing another dog—and that the other dog had a bigger bone—he dropped his own to seize it, and he ended up, of course, with nothing.
I was reminded of the story recently at a public meeting on California’s ever-worsening water woes. One of the speakers came from Poseidon Resources, a company that’s been trying to build a desalination plant in Carlsbad, Calif. Environmental groups have filed lawsuits, challenging the project’s permits. During the question-and-answer time, a committee member with the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation stood up to recount a number of problems with the project. The company’s representative, Peter MacLaggan, began his response by telling the audience he was familiar with Surfrider. In fact, he said, “We’re good friends.”
He was facetious. Surfrider, a $3.5 million nonprofit dedicated to protecting beaches and oceans, has repeatedly objected to the Carlsbad desalination plant. So have several other groups, including San Diego Coastkeeper and the Sierra Club. Why? Because desalination consumes a lot of energy, and because the seawater intake will kill some fish.
Never mind that the power plant that already exists at that location kills more fish than a desalination facility would, and never mind that the desalination plant would be powered in part by solar energy. Many environmentalists simply don’t like desalination as done with current technology. But we obviously need the water. What solution do they suggest? The usual answer you’ll hear is conservation.
Conservation is a great thing, and sometimes it’s been extremely successful. The city of Los Angeles, for example, emphasizes conservation and uses less water today than it did in 1987, despite a fast-growing population. But to claim that conservation by itself can solve the West’s water crisis is shortsighted. California’s population is projected to nearly double by 2050 if current trends continue. You can’t conserve your way out of a drought.
Would it be ideal if we shut down golf courses and tore up our lawns to plant Astro-Turf? Yes, but we don’t live in an ideal world. The West has a water crisis, and it stems from a simple problem: We’ve built our homes in deserts where nature never meant us to live. In order to stay here, we require a mix of solutions. There’s no magic bullet that will do the trick. Some solutions may have environmental impacts, but almost every human activity implies an environmental impact. You might as well object that building a wind turbine kills some birds. It does, but just think about some of the alternatives, such as a coal-fired power plant.
Environmental impacts from desalination greatly concern several environmental groups, but it’s hard to see why this is a high priority. If their concern is energy use, the Carlsbad project is powered in part by solar panels. If they’re worried about altering the marine environment, over-fishing is undoubtedly more serious. The impacts of drawing water from other sources, such as rivers or groundwater, are more serious still.
So why do some environmentalists object to desalination? I’ve concluded it’s out of a kind of wishful thinking: If only everyone were to conserve, if the population could stay at current levels, if we could find a solution that has no environmental impacts—if, if, if. In this respect, environmental advocates are behaving no differently from residents who object to Orange County’s “toilet-to-tap” project—though they have no qualms about drinking recycled wastewater from the Colorado River. Perhaps all of us prefer to ignore the realities of difficult choices in the belief that somewhere a perfect solution exists.
The debate over water use in the West has been hampered by this kind of irrational thinking for years. Ultimately, we’re going to have to discard our excess fastidiousness and make use of all the options for finding water—and that may mean turning to seawater as well. If we wait for the technology to improve, perhaps a perfect solution might come along. But that assumes that a perfect solution exists, and that we have enough time to wait for it. Sometimes, as Aesop’s dog discovered, it’s better to take what you have rather than end up with nothing at all.
Jonathan Parkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in La Jolla, Calif.