What Can Local Water Agencies Do to Boost Water Supply? (Transcript)

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Two workers looking at a series of pipes inside a desalination plant.
The Alameda County Water District’s Newark Desalination Facility, which treats brackish water.  (John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources)

California is in drought. Again. And the infrastructure used to sustain the state’s 40 million residents — and $50 billion agriculture industry — hasn’t kept up with changing climate patterns. The Bay Curious podcast will explore new ways of thinking about the future of water in our state as part of a six part series: State of Drought.

Music starts

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:00:05] Water districts around the Bay Area are asking communities to conserve, and we're seeing some of the usual go to conservation steps, you might have to request water at a restaurant instead of getting it automatically. We are watering grass less often that many of our parks, decorative fountains and water play features might be turned off. All things that move the needle in the right direction, all things that we've seen before. When we asked you, our listeners, what you wanted to know about the drought, many of you asked about what we haven't done much of before.

Steve: [00:00:43] Why is no one talking about desalination? We have potentially millions of gallons right on our doorstep.


Aris: [00:00:49] We know that California is returning to a whiplash precipitation weather pattern. What is the current plan for our water supply?

Alex: [00:00:56] I understand that the sewage water in the Bay Area is cleaned before it's put back into the ocean. If it is clean, why not put it back into the water supply? Thank you for answering my question.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:01:07] That was Steve, Aris, and 11-year-old, Max, all looking for how we can increase our water supply. In our last episode, we started looking at ways to ease our water woes by conserving at home. Today, we widen our scope to what can be done by our cities and local water agencies. We've got a quick break, but when we come back, we'll get cracking on some answers. I'm Olivia Allen-Price.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:01:42] We're answering questions from Steve, Aris and Max about the things local water districts can do to make us more resilient during these hotter, drier periods. Bay Curious producer Katrina Schwartz looked into some of those plans. And she's here. Hey, Katrina. [00:01:57][14.2]

Katrina Schwartz: [00:01:57] Hey, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:01:59] So when we asked the Bay Curious audience what they wanted to know about drought, we heard back from so many people, including Steve, wanting to know about desalination plants. We are a state with 840 miles of coastline. Many of our big population areas are right near the ocean. Why don't we have more desalination plants?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:02:20] Well, desalination plants are actually pretty controversial. I mean, you're right. They sound good. We live next to the ocean. It's a huge body of water. Why not just use that as a water source, especially because we do have the technology to do it. But the reason that it's controversial kind of falls into two categories. One is that it's very expensive both to build these plants and to run them. And then second, they can be pretty hard on the environment.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:02:44] When you say it's expensive, what are we talking about for the average consumer?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:02:48] Well, figuring out what goes into water rates can be pretty complicated. But we do know that San Diego has a functioning desalination plant right now. Water officials there said that they built it because they wanted to diversify their water sources and be less dependent on buying water from their neighbors. The water that that desalination plant produces costs at least two times more than water from other sources. And some residents down there in San Diego are pretty upset about it.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:03:16] You also mentioned the environment. How is desalinating ocean water bad for the environment?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:03:22] OK, well, first, it takes a lot of energy to strip the salt out of the water. So these plants have big carbon footprints. And until we have cleaner energy sources, that's a problem. But also, Daniel Ellis, who's a senior scientist with the State Water Board, explains that these plants can hurt marine ecosystems.

Daniel Ellis: [00:03:38] That's a huge issue. You have very salty ocean water, and then when you desalinate it, you take out the salt. So what you're left with is a byproduct brine that's about twice as salty as the ocean water.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:03:51] That briny byproduct gets put back into the ocean.

Daniel Ellis: [00:03:54] And that has an impact on the environment. A lot of marine organisms are not built to live in 66 parts per thousand salinity. They're built to live in 33.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:04:03] And then there's the other side of it.

Daniel Ellis: [00:04:05] Oftentimes, it's even bigger: the impact of taking in the water. You know, you suck in twice as much water as you make. So you take in 110 million gallons a day of water. There's marine life living in there.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:04:18] So the water that the plant takes in has small organisms that, you know, make up the food chain for the rest of the marine ecosystem. So Ellis says that whole process can have these cascading impacts on all of the sea life.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:04:31] All right. So those are some definite drawbacks. But there are some times where desal might make sense, right? I mean, it would definitely be an investment in a very reliable water source, if nothing else.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:04:42] Yeah, and some places in the Bay Area are considering it. So Marin considered it 10 years ago, but then decided against it for all of the reasons that we've already talked about, namely cost, environmental impact and high energy requirements. Now they're flirting with the idea again, but sort of on a temporary basis. So the plant that they're considering is projected to cost $37 million dollars. It would not be permanent. They would lease it to help them get through the next few years. And it would provide about a third of the county's drinking water, but it wouldn't be ready for another year or so.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:05:15] And for comparison, that temporary diesel plant is still way cheaper than the permanent one that Marin was considering, which was expected to cost up to $173 million dollars. And that estimate is from 10 years ago. Now, I know cleaning water that is less salty might make sense in some places. Can you tell us some about that?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:05:34] Yeah, Antioch is in that position. So they're building a $100 million desalination plant right now that would allow them to clean the brackish water that they have at the mouth of the San Joaquin River. So that's a mix of fresh water coming out of the delta and ocean water coming in with the tides. And, you know, in a drought, there's less water coming through the delta. So that makes their water saltier. Officials there are projecting that that plant will be completed in 2023 and Antioch would get all of its water from that plant. Also, I should mention that there is a functioning desalination plant in Newark that also cleans brackish water and turns it into drinking water. But ultimately, again, a lot of this comes back to equity for a lot of Bay Area residents, water that costs twice as much could be a real deal breaker. And at the same time, experts estimate that we can save half the water we currently use, which would be way cheaper. And it wouldn't require saddling ourselves with a super expensive desalination plant that we have to run all the time, even when water is plentiful. So, you know, some experts think desalination will be part of the mix of solutions down the road. But a lot of people say, given the array of options we have at our disposal right now, desalination shouldn't really be the first choice.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:06:48] If desal isn't the answer, what are some other options we've got?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:06:52] Well, a big one is recycling our wastewater.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:06:54] And that's what our listener Max was asking about. That's cleaning up the water that we flush down the toilet, or wash down the drain, so that we can drink it again?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:07:03] Yeah, and I know some people find that gross, but wastewater treatment plants are capable of making the water potable again. The Bay Area Council is a business and industry group. They recently evaluated desalination regionally and found that wastewater treatment makes more sense. Adrian Covert is a senior vice president of public policy there. He says the Bay Area dumps enough treated wastewater into the bay each year to fill Hetch Hetchy twice over.

Adrian Covert: [00:07:30] And it's also more than enough to meet the Bay Area's water demand through 2040. And because wastewater is cleaner than ocean water, treating it to potable standards is also about 20% cheaper than desalinating water.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:07:45] This is such a good option and honestly, one that a lot of other parts of the world are already using that we're going to talk about it more in tomorrow's episode.

Adrian Covert: [00:07:52] So I think, in short, desalinated water could make more sense and in a few localized scenarios. But when it comes to scaling the Bay Area's entire water system for climate change and adding drought proof supplies, I think recycled water is probably a better bet.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:08:10] All right, Katrina, we've talked about desalination and wastewater recycling. Are there any other ideas that local agencies are thinking about as they plan for the future?

Katrina Schwartz: [00:08:20] Well, yeah. So Cynthia Koehler, who's the president of the Marin Water Board of Directors, is interested in doing more with water budgeting. They do this in some places in Southern California already. Basically, the idea is that each home is allotted an amount of water based on a calculation of efficient use for its size and the number of people who live there. Then it's up to the individuals to stay within their budget.

Cynthia Koehler: [00:08:42] The advantage of that is that connects businesses, institutions, households more directly with their water use.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:08:50] This idea works on the principle that people will find ways to conserve that fit their lifestyle. So, for example, if you want to have your lawn, you've got to find some other way to conserve all that water. Or maybe you take shorter showers if you want to do a slip and slide on the weekend. Because if they go over their budgeted amount of water, it gets way more expensive.

Cynthia Koehler: [00:09:08] Nothing's a silver bullet. There's not going to be one thing that solves all the problems. But it is it is a tool that has been underutilized so far. And I think that'll get more play going forward.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:09:17] Interesting. So really just taking things a step further than asking people to conserve and sort of crossing your fingers and hoping they do it.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:09:24] Exactly.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:09:25] All right. Well, it sounds like we have a decent amount of options at our disposal if we need them. Thanks, Katrina.

Katrina Schwartz: [00:09:31] My pleasure.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:09:42] Are you thirsty for more solutions? Well, you are in luck. Tomorrow we finish off our solutions parade with Ezra David Romero, a climate reporter at KQED. He'll talk us through some of the big changes the state can make to help us survive a megadrought. Thanks to the question askers, whose voices you heard at the top of this episode, Steve, Aris and Max ... And the other question askers who helped us shape this episode, Alex and Eileen. Bay Curious is made by Katrina Schwartz, Brendan Willard, Sebastian Miño-Bucheli and me, Olivia Allen-Price.

Aris: [00:10:16] Bay Curious is produced at member-supported KQED in San Francisco.

Olivia Allen-Price: [00:10:23] We'll see you tomorrow.


Alex: [00:10:25] I love Bay Curious.