January 01, 2015

The Back Page: Betting on the Ocean in San Diego

Jonathan Scoll

Betting on the Ocean in San Diego

It is a safe bet that no speaker at the ribbon-cutting for San Diego County’s new seawater desalination plant at Carlsbad, projected to start up in 2016, will mention Charlie Hatfield. But 2016 also marks the centennial of an episode in Southern California water history still remembered by San Diegans.

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Plagued a century ago, as today, by a succession of drought years, they turned to a technological “fix” of the day. In December 1915, the San Diego City Council hired a rainmaker. It agreed to pay $10,000 to the colorful Hatfield, already famous in the region for his “evaporating tanks” filled with “secret chemicals” whose fumes he claimed “persuaded the moisture to come down.”

Hatfield duly installed a large tank on a twenty-foot wooden tower beside the city’s Morena Reservoir. What happened next surpassed everyone’s expectations, including his own. On January 10, 1916, rain began and continued, on and off, for more than two weeks. The resulting record flood caused widespread destruction and loss of life. When Hatfield demanded his money, the city agreed to pay only if he would admit liability for the damage. Prudently, he withdrew his demand. Local rainfall was near normal for the next decade.

The Carlsbad plant now under construction, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, will cost one billion dollars, several times the estimate when the project was conceived over a decade ago. It will supply 50 million gallons of water per day, about seven percent of San Diego County’s demand, at roughly twice what the county pays for other water. Concerns have been voiced that it could become an expensive white elephant if the water rate hikes needed to cover its cost, including servicing its $733 million bond issue, induce lower consumption or if the rains return.

The long-term water future for Southern California is predicted to be one of acute scarcity. But “Charlie Hatfield’s flood” reminds us that weather patterns may fluctuate wildly on the shorter time scale of water project development and finance.

Santa Barbara learned this the hard way. This wealthy coastal enclave north of Los Angeles spent $34 million in the early 1990s, during a drought that began in 1986, to build its own state-of-the art ocean desalination plant. No sooner was it complete when the drought ended. It has never been used. Today, renovating and reactivating the now-obsolete facility, at a cost of a further $20 million, is being considered.

The hard fact is that climate change and population growth will require ever-larger and more expensive water infrastructure “hedges.” Nowhere is this truer than in the arid West, where, as Marc Reisner once observed, there is always the drive to procure more water from “somewhere else.” When his “Cadillac Desert” appeared in 1986, “somewhere else” meant huge dams and long-distance aqueducts. Today, it may be pumping brackish groundwater, recycling “gray” sewer water, or the age-old fantasy of de-salting the ocean itself. In San Diego, the ghost of Charlie Hatfield is watching.

Jonathan Scoll

Jonathan Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment.