Opinion – Desalination could preserve the Salton Sea



Jerome H. Holmlund
Jerome H. Holmlund. / Provided photo

The Salton Sea water loss poses a growing environmental and economic threat to the Coachella Valley, Imperial County and the state. Salton Sea dewatering began in 2003, and will significantly increase after 2017, adding to the regional threat. Seaside community health, air quality, wildlife, recreation and tourism have all been affected.


Preservation, not restoration, is the only solution. However, preservation will require water inflow to balance natural evaporation plus limited desalination for the sea to again become an attractive recreation asset. This following brief outline, based on reported costs suggests an overall approach for preserving the Salton Sea.


In the 21st century, why should the Coachella Valley and Imperial County be threatened with severe economic and environmental problems, and the Salton Sea’s preservation questioned, to transfer water from a desert to cities on the shores of the Pacific Ocean? Carlsbad shows the way: Desalination!


Four Carlsbad coastal-type desalination plants producing 224,000 acre-feet per year (AFY) would replace San Diego County Water Authority’s 200,000 AFY of the QSA-directed 300,000-AFY transfer from Imperial Irrigation District (IID). The 100,000-afy transfer to the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) would be temporarily deferred.


Then, IID’s total 300,000-AFY-recovered water, their excess water from improved irrigation efficiency, plus purchased Colorado River water — the most cost-effective, low-salinity source — would balance sea evaporation, restoring the shoreline and refilling the sea.


This low-salinity inflow plus four geothermal and solar-powered Carlsbad-type Salton Sea desalination plants reducing the sea’s salinity to ocean values would restore the sea’s pre-QSA recreation and environmental qualities and finally CVWD would receive their deferred QSA water allotment.


California’s Salton Sea Restoration Plan required $8.9 billion, plus operating costs, presently valued at $3.34 billion assuming a 4 percent bond rate. This buys four coastal and four Salton Sea desalination plants, at $330 million each, totaling $2.64 billion. The remaining $700 million would purchase IID’s and Colorado River water as needed. Development, increased tax receipts, and reduced spending in Imperial County for unemployment and poverty would partially offset state funding of sea desalination operating costs.

The San Diego County Water Authority could afford desalination operating costs since its reported water expenses are comparable today with desalination system operating costs and may decline using desalinated water.

Can the state afford the $3.34 billion to preserve the Salton Sea? Can our federal and state governments revise, debate, legislate, etc., to overcome the state and federal obstacles and preserve the Salton Sea, a key part of a potential $5 billion Imperial County development?

Carlsbad has answered the desalination feasibility question. State and federal leaders must act to answer the Salton Sea preservation question. Apparently, desalination environmental concerns in California have decreased somewhat with 20 coastal projects currently considered. Impressive future benefits from preservation save the Salton Sea’s recreational and environmental features, eliminating the threat. The San Diego County Water Authority acquires water independent of drought-prone Colorado River.

IID regains its multimillion-dollar agriculture business, plus a key recreation resource for Imperial County future development. Imperial County and California move forward, increasing their jobs and tax base, solve part of their water problem, gain a large recreation and environmental preserve and balance QSA benefits and costs.


  1. Substantive post Improv- generally viable solutions are in the math. Somehow the drama of global warming, or is it cooling, has driven the renewable energy evolution despite its poor math.

  2. A few staggeringly difficult problems to overcome there:

    First, operating costs for desalinization plants run from $2-$4 per 1000 gallons. If you’re hoping to pump 50 million gallons/day you’re looking at a minimum of $100,000 per day per plant, or close to 150 million per year for four plants.

    Second, what will you do with the waste water? Desalinization produces brine as a waste product which can have all kinds of nastiness in it. The Carlsbad plant has the luxury of just pumping that back out into the sea because no amount of brine will ever appreciably raise the salinity of something as big as the ocean. But how will we handle that at the Salton Sea?

    The cost of the four coastal desalinization plants is pretty prohibitive as well. Your best case operating cost is around $30 million/year to provide 60,000 acre-feet of water at a stagger operational cost of $500/acre-foot. That’s not even factoring in the $330million up front cost of building the plant. Carlsbad did it because they were up against the wall and it was the only economically viable choice. The water the SDCWA currently gets from the QSA will be way more viable than any desalinization effort would be.

    No, I’m afraid any serious effort to save the Salton sea is going to come in well over $10 billion by the end of the project, and California being as broke as it is will not have the fiscal ability or political will to bring it about. The Salton Sea is doomed to be a dead sea for the foreseeable future. There are too many other, higher priorities to worry about first.

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