They used to call California ocean desalination a disaster. But water crisis brings new look at what’s possible
Photographs of the now-demolished California desalination plant show a single water tower and a single pumping station. The plant was designed to produce 1.4 billion gallons a day. In all, more than 17 billion gallons of water were pumped from the ocean each day.Credit: Photo: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
In the 1980s, California’s water crisis was not just catastrophic, but also a disaster.
As state officials grappled with a drought that would stretch across the state for three decades, there was a growing push to desalinate salt water, using sea water to fill up plastic barrels.
On June 30, 1987, a massive earthquake toppled the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and damaged parts of the Golden Gate Bridge.
With the bridge partially destroyed, the California Department of Water Resources decided to close the only desalination plant in the state.
It would take until November 1995 for the state to have a new ocean desalination facility, opening one in 1997. But that was by no means the end of the story.
California was at the center of a global water crisis that could continue for decades.
“Desalination has been a disaster in terms of solving the water crisis,” said Chris Woodruff, a professor of environmental planning at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied water policy. “But the costs have been absolutely enormous.”
Water problems were at the core of the 1980s.
In California, the drought of the 1970s and early 1980s was followed by a prolonged drought in the 1990s, which stretched across the state for more than three decades.
California’s population grew from about 7 million in 1950 to more than 42 million today. The state is now importing water from the Colorado River to the tune of more than 6