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An all-of-the-above approach to drought
California continues to endure its worst drought in more than 1,200 years. A growing number of communities have been impacted by the severe drought conditions, and mandatory water usage reductions are doing little to alleviate their effects. While we can’t make it rain, we can do more to utilize readily available water.
Local desalination projects have continuously undergone permitting battles with government agencies. After six years of back and forth with the California Coastal Commission and 14 lawsuits, the largest desalination project in the Western Hemisphere, in Carlsbad, has finally been approved. It’s been estimated that this project will employ 2,500 people and provide 50 million gallons of drinking water every day when it opens next year.
Desalination plants, using a process called reverse osmosis, convert seawater into drinking water. This idea is not new, nor should it be seen as partisan. John F. Kennedy saw the potential for desalination: “If we could produce freshwater from saltwater at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.”
In April, Gov. Jerry Brown authorized $200 million for desalination and water recycling projects. But delays from state and federal agencies have resulted in a pile-up of 15 pending desalination projects along the coast awaiting approval, essentially denying residents of a potential reliable water source.
As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I recently sent a letter with San Diego-area Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas to the State Department, urging it to complete its review of the Otay water project, which could bring up to 50 million gallons of desalinated water from Mexico to California. Since 2013, the State Department has been reviewing the environmental impact and U.S. national security interests of the project. As one of the many agencies that are required to pursue an action, it is important that the State Department conclude its work promptly.
We see these types of projects becoming more common around the world. In Israel, where drought is not uncommon, similar government-backed projects provide 130 billion gallons of desalinated Mediterranean seawater to more than half of the nation’s population. Israel also treats and reuses nearly 70 percent of its waste water for agriculture. Even during times of drought, Israel has a reliable water supply. We should consider modeling our water projects after countries that have a wealth of knowledge and experience to share.
Government often stands as an obstacle to even the most obvious solutions. Large-scale infrastructure projects are not an exception to this rule. Congress has a responsibility to help streamline and reform the permitting process for water projects.
To that end, I am an original co-sponsor of the Western Water and American Food Security Act authored by Central California Republican Rep. David Valadao. This bill, which passed the House of Representatives on July 16, provides both emergency and long-term water supply to California, increases water storage capacity and streamlines the permitting process to approve water recycling and reuse projects. It also establishes “one stop shop” permitting reforms aimed at building infrastructure to capture more water.
Our current system of moving water through the California State Water Project is slow and nontransparent; this bill takes steps in order to get more water to Southern California and will allow us to pump more water during the wet months to use in the dry months.
This is just a start. Our current water crisis did not appear overnight, and it will not be solved in a day. Long-term planning requires a regulatory environment that both ensures that water projects in the pipeline today are not bogged down by excessive red tape, and that innovative solutions being employed around the globe can be quickly adopted here. We should begin by approving viable and proven desalination projects as part of an “all of the above approach” to the drought.
Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, represents California’s 39th Congressional District.