A new report finds that increasing freshwater supplies through desalination may prove critically important to specific coastal communities. But the technology is unlikely to significantly alter the basic water budget in California due to its high cost, energy demands and other factors, according to findings by cross-sector experts with Stanford, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and The Nature Conservancy.

California’s current four-year drought has rekindled interest in ocean desalination as a new and reliable water supply option. Decisions about desalination facilities, however, remain contentious.  Concerns about desalination often focus on cost, energy consumption, and impacts on the marine environment.  In the context of drought and a warming climate, it is critical that California has a clear understanding of all of these impacts and how to manage them. 

To develop those insights, the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, through the Center for Ocean Solutions and Water in the West program, collaborated with The Nature Conservancy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium to facilitate an Uncommon Dialogue on the challenges and opportunities that desalination presents for coastal communities in California and beyond.  

Over the course of two days in January 2016, leading experts from academia, non-governmental organizations, private industry, and government agencies gathered in Monterey to exchange information in an open exploration of the best available science, technology and policy related to desalination. Meeting participants also identified key issues, challenges and knowledge gaps in science and policy that should be explored in future work. The dialogue was organized around sessions that focused on the regulatory framework of desalination in California, siting and community impacts, seawater intakes, and brine disposal.

The organizing committee synthesized and summarized the proceedings and conclusions of that dialogue into this newly released report.

The summary recommends that California’s new desalination policy be supplemented by research and policies designed to identify locations along the coast where the impacts on the marine environment can most easily be minimized.

As California’s water needs and environmental policies continue to co-evolve, there will be an ever-greater demand for integrated, innovative solutions that consider a suite of environmental and socio-economic impacts, workshop participants agreed.

Accordingly, a strong sense of the meeting participants is that the likelihood of a sustainable future for water resources in the state will be greatly increased if relevant experts continue to strengthen cross-sectoral lines of communication similar to those employed during this two-day dialogue. 

Participants also agreed that an important follow up to the conference should be better focused efforts to communicate with the public in the state as a whole regarding both the potential and limitations of ocean desalination as a tool to address California’s future water scarcity issues.

Download a PDF of the full report, and read past coverage of the workshop from the Center for Ocean Solutions.