Open-ocean desalination is the single most energy-intensive water supply option in the region. It requires 47 percent more energy than transporting water from the San Joaquin Delta through the State Water Project, which is currently the most energy-intensive way we get water. Put another way, the CDP will add between 100,000-154,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, to our fragile atmosphere, thus exacerbating climate change concerns.

Thanks to Al Gore and extensive media attention, the public is now increasingly aware of the impacts of global warming, and the long-term threat to our planet if we do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Every day, it seems, we see increasing warnings about climate change, including this month’s United Nations report that The San Diego Union Tribune called the “most ominous yet.”

Now, I have already heard from some folks who do not believe that humans are affecting climate and couch those who believe in global warming as the “Chicken Little crowd.” To that group, I can only ask, regardless of whatever you feel about global warming (and count me as a believer), isn’t less pollution going into our air and ocean better than more pollution? If there is some uncertainty, shouldn’t we employ the “precautionary principle,” which states simply that we should err on the side of caution to prevent serious of irreversible harm to public health or the environment?

Those who are believers recognize that weaning the San Diego region off imported water is a crucial strategy in addressing climate change. Transporting water throughout California consumes 19 percent of the state’s electricity, 32 percent of its natural gas supplies, and 88 million gallons of diesel fuel annually. Transporting water supplies to Southern California requires nearly 60 times the energy needed to convey water in Northern California.

And yet, in our quest to find an “easy solution” to San Diego water’s crisis (meaning any solution that doesn’t require the sacrifice of conservation or the leadership needed to advocate for indirect potable reuse), we are about to embrace the one water supply solution that will significantly increase the region’s carbon footprint.  

At the recent hearings on the CDP, several speakers discussed the need for developing local water supplies in light of San Diego’s ongoing drought.  There was heartfelt testimony about the need to ensure that we have adequate local water supplies to fight future wildfires like those hat have devastated our region over the past few years.

While I am sympathetic to those who lost their homes or were otherwise impacted by the wildfires, following this tortured logic would lead us to the conclusion that we must create a new water source to address a problem that will be exacerbated by the very cure we adopt. In fact, our recent droughts and even the 2007 wildfires have at least been partly linked to climate change, and many scientists have suggested that future droughts and fires will likely be even more severe if we do not reverse warming trends. According to Science Daily, “The catastrophic fires that are sweeping Southern California are consistent with what climate change models have been predicting for years, experts say.” According to the Center for American Progress, “Perhaps most frightening is that massive, destructive wildfires could occur even more frequently and with greater ferocity due to global warming”. Earlier this year, the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described how “a warming climate encourages wildfires through a longer summer period that dries fuels, promoting easier ignition and faster spread.”

The people advocating for the CDP must not be familiar with the adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” — in other words, decreasing our carbon footprint to hopefully slow if not actually reverse climate change is a far more prudent strategy to address drought and fires than exacerbating the problem to “create the cure.”

We might one day need to make that difficult choice — choosing water creation over CO2 reductions. But we shouldn’t have to make that choice now, not when better, cheaper, more environmentally friendly and energy efficient water supply options exist (which will be covered in a later post). 

— BRUCE REZNIK

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