MARINA, Calif. - In the Central California coastal town of Marina, a $7 million desalination plant that can turn salty ocean waves into fresh drinking water sits idle behind rusty, locked doors, shuttered by water officials because rising energy costs made the plant too expensive.
Far to the north in well-heeled Marin County, plans were scrapped for a desalination facility despite two decades of planning and millions of dollars spent on a pilot plant.
Squeezing salt from the ocean to make clean drinking water is a worldwide phenomenon that has been embraced in thirsty California, with its cycles of drought and growing population. There are currently 17 desalination proposals in the state, concentrated along the Pacific where people are plentiful and fresh water is not.
In this photo taken Sept. 13, Robert James of the California American Water company looks over an intake pipe from an aquifer at a desalination plant in Sand City, Calif. Not long ago, the idea of squeezing salt from the ocean to make clean drinking water was embraced warmly in thirsty California with its cycles of drought and growing population. But it has not panned out the way many hoped. Desalination plants are costing more to build; they're huge energy suckers and lingering concerns about the impact to marine life have spurred myriad lawsuits.
But many projects have been stymied by skyrocketing construction costs, huge energy requirements for running plants, regulatory delays and legal challenges over environmental impacts on marine life. Only one small plant along Monterey Bay is pumping out any drinking water.
From Marin County to San Diego, some water districts are asking themselves: How much are we willing to pay for this new water?
"We found that our demand for water had dropped so much since the time we started exploring desalination, we didn't need the water," said Libby Pischel, a spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District. "Right now, conservation costs less than desalination."
Desalination plants can take water from the ocean or drill down and grab the less salty, brackish water from seaside aquifers. Because of their potential impacts to marine life, the California Coastal Commission reviews each project case-by-case.
There was great fanfare in 2009 when the last regulatory hurdle was cleared to build the Western Hemisphere's largest desalination plant in Carlsbad, north of San Diego.
At the time, it was proposed that the $320 million project would suck in 100 million gallons of seawater and be capable of producing 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. It was expected to come online by this year.
Since then, the plant owner, Poseidon Resources LLC, has been negotiating a water purchase agreement and is close to clinching a 30-year deal with the San Diego County Water Authority, a wholesaler to cities and agencies that provide water to 3.1 million people.