Desalination is used worldwide, from Israel to Australia. Here, project engineer Mike Watts watches as saltwater flows into the pre-treatment hall at the Kurnell desalination plant, in Sydney, Australia, in October 2010.

Could the Pacific Ocean be California’s water saviour? He can, if we want him to be


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Desalination is used all over the world, from Israel to Australia.  Here, project engineer Mike Watts watches salt water flow through the pre-treatment hall at Kurnell's desalination plant in Sydney, Australia in October 2010.

Desalination is used all over the world, from Israel to Australia. Here, project engineer Mike Watts watches salt water flow through the pre-treatment hall at Kurnell’s desalination plant in Sydney, Australia in October 2010.


Since the first exploration by European explorers of what became California, its position on the west coast of the North American continent has been its most important attribute.

Its coastline allowed for this exploration and the development of outposts when most of the continent was still mysterious wilderness. He favored the Gold Rush of 1849 which accelerated the creation of the State of California. Its beaches have attracted millions of visitors. This made California the arsenal and starting point of the Pacific Theater of World War II, and ultimately became a focal point of world ocean trade.

Could California’s coastal waters now become its savior, ending the growing water and electrical power shortages that threaten the state’s economic and societal future?

Yes, it can, but only if California’s political and civic leaders overcome their tendency to stifle major public works – as symbolized by the bullet train history of overspending and underspending, decades of dragging its feet on much-needed water storage projects and crippling bottlenecks at ports across the state.

Finally, after decades of dithering, California’s Byzantine bureaucracy is finally preparing for the desalination of seawater as a vital part of the state’s water supply, though it still resists major projects that could have a real impact on shortages as is the case in other water-scarce countries. .

Meanwhile, California is just beginning to grasp the potential of offshore wind turbines to generate huge amounts of renewable electric power that would help fill the state’s current supply gap, meet huge new demands and to achieve the state’s ambitious goals of ending its dependence on fossil fuels.

Last week, the federal government held auctions for wind power development rights at two ocean sites, one 20 miles west of Morro Bay and the other off Humboldt County.

Advocates believe the sites could generate up to 8 gigawatts of electrical power, or about one-sixth of the state’s current peak electricity demand during hot summer days and about one-third of the goal state of 25 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2045.

“Offshore wind is a critical component to achieving our global clean energy goals and this sale is a historic step in California’s march toward a fossil fuel-free future,” Newsom said in a statement.

However, given the state’s dismal record on high-impact projects, will this really happen? Will we really see, as state plans now suggest, offshore energy start flowing into the grid within 10 years?

Don’t count on it.

Floating platforms to support the huge windmills, anchored in more than 2,000 feet of water, are the subject of critical attention from environmental groups and a phalanx of federal regulatory hurdles and state. They would also require onshore support facilities in coastal communities where resistance to development is culturally rooted, as well as cables to bring electricity ashore and vast extensions of transmission facilities to connect to the grid.

The timeframe for all of this to happen, as the state assumes in its comprehensive plan to transition California to renewable electric power, is very short. We are now 22 years into the 21st century and supposedly all of this would be happening in just 23 more years – simultaneously with many other elements of decarbonization, such as the shift to battery or hydrogen powered cars and trucks and the phase out of gas natural in homes, commerce and industry.

It would take an immense cultural shift in the governance apparatus of the state to make everything happen on schedule, a sense of urgency, unity of purpose, and far more managerial skills than California has. collected over the last half century.

The ocean could, indeed, be our saviour. Theoretically, it could provide unlimited amounts of clean water and clean energy. But that will only happen if we succeed.

Dan Walters writes for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California politics and politics.

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Dan Walters, CalMatters columnist.

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