Marina Desalination Plant: An Interview with Dr. John Skardon

The following interview was conducted by Alison Thomas questioning Dr. John N. Skardon of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB).

The Cal Am Desalination Project is currently under review to be executed in Marina. According to the City of Marina website, the project will “use slant wells to draw brackish (salt) water, and also tap into significant fresh groundwater sources that Marina residents rely upon for 100% of their drinking water.” The program has received much skepticism. To create an educational discourse about the proposed plant, John N. Skardon, who is an instructor under the School of Natural Sciences at CSUMB, was interviewed about the subject.

“‘The proposed desalination plant in Monterey Bay is touted as a solution to our drinking water shortage,’ Churchill said,” Skardon explained about the process of and problems within our drinking water and how water filtration can affect student and faculty budgets. “But at more than $1700 per acre-foot and cumulative costs approaching $1 billion, everyone in the county will be faced with much higher water prices for the foreseeable future.” 

Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Skardon believed desalination by reverse osmosis is the worst possible way to solve our drinking water problem, except for all the others. Or as Skardon’s neighbor usually says when faced with a huge plumbing bill “pay once, cry once.”

But is energy-intensive membrane filtration really the only solution? There are many who say no and point to the use of the output from the Pure Water Monterey Project as the source of much-needed water.  As an engineer, Skardon is in favor of recycling our water but remember- the price for recycling water does not come cheap.

Seawater membrane filtration plants are known entities and touted as being sustainable.  We know how to build them and how much they cost to build and operate. This lowers the perceived risk by banks and bondholders that would be needed to finance the project. This gives Cal Am or any other operator the ability to assure its municipal customers that water will be available at a predictable price.  

What the community doesn’t know yet is the long-term effect of dumping hot RO concentrate (and its chemicals) into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the effects of the huge increase in energy demand.  

“In the courses I teach at CSUMB, we are very focused on this type of problem within our common pool resources, like drinking water,” Skardon said. “Our lack of drinking water could be explained as a negative externality- an inefficient allocation of goods and services caused by some underlying problem.”

An example of a negative externality is the pervasive nitrate problem in our groundwater. State government encouraged the farmers to grow as much as possible over the past decades but when nitrate began showing up at unhealthy levels in many wells across the state.

“The battle began over how to solve the problem,” Skardon said. “The State asked the growers to pay to fix the problem.  The growers responded by claiming that there was no affordable technology.”

Translate this into, if we do this, it will cost us money, increase our operating costs, and we’ll have no way to pass this cost onto consumers. That argument has worked for more than 20 years via the infamous “Ag Waiver”  but may come to an end next year. Is there a zero net cost way to solve the nitrate problem? We’ll see.

How do we correct negative externalities in common-pool resources?  One way is to make the “polluter pay” to fix the problem.  That is essentially what is happening with both the desal plant and the Monterey Pure Water Project expansion.  

“But this assumes that the users of the resource can afford to pay for the more expensive water – my water bill is expected to increase up to four times per Cal Am letter,” Skardon said. 

Students at CSUMB have read Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” and understand that traditionally, there were only two outcomes to problems in the commons – the State must take over the resource and regulate its use or see the resource over-exploited. 

But the late Elinor Ostrom – who received the Nobel Prize in 2009 – came up with a another idea: communities could solve their own problems if they could get all the stakeholders to work together, share the same goals and data, and most importantly agree to enforce their own rules without the overbearing intrusion by State or Federal regulators. Can Ostrom’s pioneering work help our decision makers make the best choice and is there a third solution?

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