America’s Can’t-Do State: California’s Man-Made Drought Continues

desalination plantThe first desalination plant in a state dragging itself through a drought has finally opened — a welcome event but also instructive in how nearly impossible it is to build anything useful in California.

The Claude “Bud” Lewis Desalination Plant was dedicated Dec. 14 in Carlsbad north of San Diego. It will remove salt from seawater, turning it into fresh water fit to consume. The $1-billion facility should churn out 50 million gallons of drinking water each day.

With an ocean of water sitting there for the taking, this plant — and several others like it — should have been built years ago. If so, California’s man-made drought could have been avoided.

But California has become a can’t-do state.

The Carlsbad desalination plant was proposed in 1998 and took almost 18 years to build. But only three of those years were actually spent building. The rest were wasted on politics and the usual Golden State regulatory and bureaucratic tangle. One of the plant’s investors told a California writer that the duplicative state approval process alone delayed the project by at least a decade and added about 10% to total costs.

“It took longer to get approvals for this one desalination plant than it did to design, approve and complete most of the 60-year-old State Water Project — California’s enormous system of dams, aqueducts and pumping stations that brings northern California water to the more arid Southland,” writes Steven Greenhut, a San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and a contributor to

The delays — primarily engineered by environmentalists — were so lengthy and difficult to overcome that the future of desalination plants in California, beginning its fourth year of drought, is grim.

Rob Deutschman, vice chairman of merchant bank Cappello Group and an early financial backer of the Carlsbad plant, told Bloomberg News that the project “required far more equity capital and development capital than we anticipated.”

“In hindsight was it a good investment? Probably not,” said Deutschman.

Greenhut said some investors “were no longer sure” the plant “could turn a profit,” given all the traps it had to negotiate. Another needed desalination plant is being planned up the coast in Huntington Beach, but who would invest in a project that will be held up so often and so exhaustively that the profit will be taken out of it?

And this is only one story.

While much of the state turns brown for lack of water, a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam — which is located in the northern reaches of the state and holds back California’s largest reservoir — by 18.5 feet above its 602-foot height goes nowhere. Once completed, the $1.3 billion project would boost the reservoir’s capacity by about 14% and the state’s water supply by the equivalent of an entirely new dam, even though it would still be nearly 200 feet short of its initially planned height of 800 feet.

Blame the usual opponents of progress.

“Anytime you want to change anything in California water, it’s a big deal,” Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis, told a public radio outlet in the region.

“There’s always 500 different interests lined up on 500 different sides. There’s always going to be someone who’s unhappy, and they all have lawyers.”

Two of the “500” or so interests who oppose enlarging the reservoir are environmentalists and an Indian tribe. Each represents some of the heavier political forces in California and Washington. So expect officials to give them preferential treatment over the millions downstream — including farmers whose livelihoods depend on a steady water supply — who need relief.

California has not built a major water project in more than 35 years. Yet, as the state population has swelled by more than 55% over that time, officials have been unwilling to do what’s necessary to ensure an ample supply of water. It’s negligence of the highest order.

The only consequential project that can be built in the parched state is a bullet train, a costly boondoggle to nowhere whose only “riders” will be the politically connected who make out on the deal.