By Ekta Patel

When I first pitched the topic of my dissertation on global water management in early 2020, I envisioned seeking insight in the “field” — rushing from building to building, jotting interview notes on paper and napkins, and waiting around in lobbies and libraries. Gathering data was going to be a physical endeavor. More than a year later, and understandably so, none of this has happened.

Figure 1: All desalination plants (n = 21,055) approved for construction as of Jan 2020 (DesalData)

Instead, I spend hours in one chair at home as I sift through hundreds of documents on a 15-inch laptop. Anything from public meeting notes, academic literature, news coverage, and conference minutes. Though I still keep tabs on when the National Archives in Washington, D.C. will reopen and how the health and climate emergencies are unfolding in southern California, a key site for my research, in the hopes of making a visit. My dissertation examines water management norms through the study of seawater desalination, the technological process that removes salts and minerals from saline water like the ocean to produce drinkable water. Often desalination is framed as a technical supply “solution” to the problem of water scarcity, which will affect 1.8 billion people by 2025. But desalination’s known downsides — such as its high financial costs, large energy needs, local community impact, and environmental harm to marine life — as well as its yet-to-be-seen effects make it socially, economically, environmentally, and politically contentious. As seawater desalination gains rapid traction worldwide (see Figure 1), I investigate what drives its adoption, who participates in adoption decisions and how, and what this tells us about our collective approach to water management and scarcity.

While my dissertation project will be completed in stages, this summer I have focused on two. The first looks into early attempts at pursuing large-scale desalination worldwide to better understand the processes that embrace and constrain it. Documenting the historical story through archival reports and news coverage has been fascinating. Although I had a hunch that I would find contemporary arguments decades back, the overlap is extensive. Take for instance these two New York Times clips from 60 years ago, albeit US-skewed. They bring up aridity, desertification, a looming global water crisis, the man-made nature of the problem, and questions around the economic feasibility of desalination. They also show the key roles of scientists, government, and international organizations in local and global deliberations. We see similar themes plastered on newspapers today along with concerns about water scarcity and what to do about it.

The second details the permitting process of a proposed $1.4-billion desalination factory in Huntington Beach, California. If built, this privately-owned factory would produce enough drinking water for roughly 400,000 people each day. At what cost (and profit) remains to be determined. To move forward, the private company — Poseidon Water — needs permits from state and regional authorities as well as a finalized contract with the local public authority, the Orange County Water District. Although the process has lasted two decades, the regional water board granted a key permit to the project this April. I had been following the process for years, and the move to virtual public hearings since last year made listening to the seven-member board’s deliberations accessible to someone like me who has the internet and time (it will be interesting to see if virtual options remain available in the future). Hearings in April lasted two days, approximately ten hours each, with hundreds of public comments and lengthy discussions, most of which focused on ways to mitigate the marine impacts of desalination. Much of my work now entails analyzing the written and audio records — from this April and over the years — to map out the for and against arguments related to this permit and situate it in the broader context of water management. I am mostly curious to see how arguments along social, political, economic, and environmental dimensions are made and incorporated in justifying the need for this project. Which arguments hold sway? What incentives do the board, Poseidon Water, and the public face? Whose participation is left out? How are local residents reacting? Is this process emblematic of equitable and sustainable water planning? How will this source improve water access and security? How much stock does the concept of “drought-proofing,” a widely-used phrase in framing desalination, have? In the backdrop of California’s second megadrought of the past decade — more evidence of human-caused climate change — I remain glued to understanding how the next permitting stages progress.