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Desalination and California’s Water Future

In light of California’s drought and increased interest in meeting its water needs through desalination of ocean water, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, through the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and Water in the West, collaborated with Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Nature Conservancy to facilitate an Uncommon Dialogue among cross-sector experts on the potential impacts of ocean desalination on coastal and marine ecosystems.

Over the course of two days in January 2016, leading experts from academia, non-governmental organizations, private industry and government agencies gathered in Monterey to exchange information in an open exploration of the best available science, technology and policy related to desalination. Meeting participants also identified key issues, challenges and knowledge gaps in science and policy that should be explored in future work. The dialogue was organized around sessions that focused on the regulatory framework of desalination in California, siting and community impacts, seawater intakes and brine disposal.

The organizing committee synthesized and summarized the proceedings and conclusions of that dialogue into a report. Among the report’s conclusions was that although desalination may prove critically important to specific coastal communities, it is unlikely to significantly alter the basic water budget in California due to its high cost, energy demands and other factors.  In addition, the report recommended that California’s new desalination policy be supplemented by research and policies designed to identify locations along the coast where the impacts on the marine environment could most easily be minimized.

As California’s water needs and environmental policies continue to co-evolve, there will be an ever-greater demand for integrated, innovative solutions that consider a suite of environmental and socio-economic impacts. Accordingly, a strong sense of the meeting participants was that the likelihood of a sustainable future for water resources in the state will be greatly increased if relevant experts continued to strengthen cross-sectoral lines of communication similar to those employed during the two-day dialogue.  Participants also agreed that an important follow up to the conference would be better focused efforts to communicate with the public in the state as a whole regarding both the potential and limitations of ocean desalination as a tool to address California’s future water scarcity issues.

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