*Desalination plants in San Diego could save the Salton Sea

When the Salton Sea odor blew through the Los Angeles Basin recently, it got the politicians activated again to solve the “Salton Sea problem.” Unfortunately, what politicians tend to fuss over is power and control over billions of dollars. This fails the smell test because no one is really thinking through a solution based on root causes.

It is analogous to imagining if the owners of the Titanic were able to see well in advance the deadly iceberg that would sink it, but instead of steering clear, they spent all their time arguing over who is going to be the captain of the salvage ship pulling the scrap off the ocean floor.

Risk management principles predict that the most likely outcome for the Salton Sea given our present course will be ecosystem death, permanent intractable air pollution, loss of wildlife habitat and enormous amounts of money wasted chasing one ineffectual stopgap fix after another because the risks from our current course are vast, intractable and obvious.

There are engineering risks, where perhaps our state engineers aren’t up to the gargantuan task, and their cost-cutting design won’t quite work, resulting in a money pit of never-ending fixes.

There are monstrous fiscal risks, with billions required to build a vast ecosystem infrastructure, and billions more required for maintenance and upkeep in perpetuity.

There are earthquake risks, with the sea’s new infrastructure and ecosystem likely to be damaged and unlikely to be fixed, and pipelines to San Diego getting severed.

There are political risks, where it is unlikely state legislators will appropriate billions to a local agency without any control over where the money goes, for a speculative project that looks like a “bridge to nowhere” at a time where they will need to defend slashing K-12 education and UC system budgets.

A basic premise of risk management is that effective solutions result from addressing the root cause of the risk. Right now we forget that the root cause is that San Diego made the water too valuable to go into the Salton Sea. San Diego is not evil for going after the water. It is a highly valuable resource and transferring water from agricultural uses to growing populations is standard operating procedure for such resources. But despite paying a premium price, San Diego gets all the benefits of the resource and the rest of us are stuck with the risks of massive and permanent losses. A transparent risk analysis should have happened years ago but the money from San Diego looked too good and the risks were not really clear. Now that the risks are clearer, why continue to assume the transfer, and miss our last opportunity to imagine an alternate solution?

An alternate solution to avoiding a dead Salton Sea is to provide San Diego with a new source of water of an equal or greater amount at a reasonable price that would enable the water transfer deal to be modified or canceled.

Instead of mortally wounding the sea and spending billions to keep it on life-support, imagine taking all that same money and infrastructure effort to instead build a desalination plant in San Diego right on the Pacific Ocean of a size sufficient to exceed the amount of the proposed water transfer.

Let’s imagine avoiding spending tens, if not hundreds, of billions for a massive ecosystem experiment that probably won’t really solve the air pollution and habitat problems, while setting up a costly and risky water transfer system to route water down to San Diego across major earthquake faults. For the billions it will cost us to barely maintain a festering Salton Sea for decades to come, we could not only rapidly build an ultra-modern desalination plant in San Diego but also pair it with a new state-of-the-art low-carbon emissions power plant that could replace the problematic San Onofre nuclear plant.

This is not speculative engineering, as we can follow the example of Saudi Arabia, which today operates 30 desalinated water facilities, and which is investing billions in new solar-powered desalination facilities. The alternative solution creates useful modern infrastructure for meaningful enhancement to Southern California, immediately stabilizes the Salton Sea inflows and shoreline and produces a win for every constituency. Right now, we see the iceberg and insist on steering straight for it with the intention to crash. There is still time to imagine an alternative future.

Gary Rosenblum is an executive risk management consultant. He was risk manager for Palm Desert from 2001 to 2011, and was previously a safety executive at Arco for more than 17 years. Email him at grosenblum@dc.rr.com


  1. I wonder if it is possible to create an aqueduct to supply more water from the Pacific ocean to the Salton Sea. The primary benefit of this proposal would be to create a much larger amount of water after desalination for a potable resource for the SoCal region. I know this would be costly. Think very long term. At this time, the Salton Sea is more salty than the Pacific Ocean water in the SoCal area, so this infusion of ocean water will in effect dilute the salt significantly.

  2. Coming on line soon a desalinization plant providing water to San Diego County Water Authority 56,000 acre feet per year. http://www.carlsbad-desal.com.

    What I find particularly important and informative is that most of the recent articles written and inquiries made to the federal government regarding this recent stinch issue with the sea have appropriately not contended that the IID has caused or has some sort of a legal obligation to be putting fresh water into the Salton Sea. The IID has not caused nor does it have an obligation or responsibility for the problems of the sea unless it chooses to participate in a solution. The Salton Sea was formed by an engineering accident of others in the early 1900’s and an “Act of God” and the environmental problems associated with this accidental sea are the responsibility of the associated governing public agencies. As long as the stinch of the problem continue to drift and inconvenience/impact urban populations in LA and the more populated exclusive desert communities…believe me this problem will get solved much sooner than later. If the winds continue to be favorable this poop negatively impacts their soup.

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