Water Everywhere

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State and local governments have responded to California's five-year old drought by attempting to reduce and redistribute water consumption. Meanwhile, private companies are helping Californians tap the state's most conspicuous source of water: the Pacific Ocean.

In March a developer on Santa Catalina island near Los Angeles began testing a recently completed desalination plant that will produce about 168 acre-feet of fresh water a year (an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, enough to supply two average households for a year). Whitehawk Catalina Inc. of Pasadena built the reverse-osmosis plant, which will be managed by Southern California Edison, mainly to allow completion of its 330-unit Hamilton Cove condominium project. About half the water produced by the plant will be sold to other residents of the island. (Another developer, the Santa Catalina Island Co., is also considering a joint desalination project with Edison.)

"This project wouldn't have been built if it was left up to the governmental agency," David Boyle, co-engineer for the plant, told the Los Angeles Business Journal. "This happened when a private entrepreneur decided to solve the problem." Santa Catalina's reservoir has dropped from more than 1,000 acre-feet to about 300. Residents are subject to voluntary water-conservation rules that will become mandatory if the reservoir continues to shrink.

In Santa Barbara, another town that has been especially hard hit by the drought, the Massachusetts firm Ionics Inc. plans to build a desalination plant that would supply 2,500 to 10,000 acre-feet of water a year under a contract with the city. Unlike the Santa Catalina plant, the Santa Barbara project is seen as a stopgap measure, with the initial contract set to expire after five years. The company expects to start construction in late June and begin operating the plant by February.

State water authorities have generally dismissed desalination as too expensive. Ionics estimates that water from its plant will cost about 60 cents per 100 gallons, compared to 7 cents for water from Southern California's Metropolitan Water District. But the company says the cost could be cut in half after five years. For Santa Barbara, where growth-fearing city officials chose not to be hooked into the state's major water-supply systems, desalination makes sense, especially during a drought.

Boyle argues that desalination is a viable option for many other coastal communities as well. He says the alternative has fallen into the cracks between two sets of government agencies: local distributors (usually municipalities), which tend not to worry about supply, and regional wholesalers, which are wary of major changes.

"They talk about these studies and grandiose plans," Boyle says. "They study and study and study, but nothing ever happens." He suggests that the key is to follow the Catalina model: allow the people who need water to find the most cost-effective way to get it.

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