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Thirsty Californians Tithe To High-Speed Rail


California is a beautiful state, but its incompetent government has turned it into a national joke—a “meanwhile, in California” meme seems appropriate for whatever’s going on elsewhere, because odds are California is doing something even dumber, like declaring an Uber driver is an employee instead of a private contractor, making laws about your bathroom’s temperature, or banning “ex-gay” reparative therapy. 

Today, during one of California’s most severe droughts in recent history, we can illustrate like so:

HighSpeedRail1The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial in April opposing building more desalination plants like the brand new one opening in Carlsbad, which would provide water to the San Diego County Water Authority. The main complaints? It costs too much and does too little, while potentially hazarding the environment. The Carlsbad plant would provide only 7 percent of the county’s water supply while demanding a lot of energy. Poseidon, the company who built the plant, hopes to build more.

Still, it is a $1 billion project that took 15 years to build, compared the projected $68 billion the state is spending on high-speed rail, which will not be fully complete until after 2040. As we know, modern trains built and subsidized by the government never a) finish on time b) finish on budget and c) cover their own operating and capital expenses. That makes the water plants a far more rational investment.

The LA Times makes squinty eyes at desalination, but it painted a lavish picture of the rail’s ground-breaking ceremony in January, gushing over Gov. Jerry Brown’s inspiring words. They quoted Brown as saying that the rail “links us from the past to the future, from the south to the north” and that he likened the train to “the great cathedrals of Europe.” The only catch the Times saw, apparently, was where to get the rest of the funding necessary to complete this grand design in all its cathedral-like majesty.

Desalination Plants Are Necessary and Effective

Yet when it comes to solving the state’s chronic water problem, $1 billion on a desalination plant that produces water (albeit at nearly twice the cost of conventional water) regardless of weather and climate is too much. An increase in average water bills of $5 to $7 per month is too much. The entire field of technology is dismissed. Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Enthusiasm for desalination tends to overlook its high costs, which stem in part from its enormous energy demand and weighty environmental footprint.”

I’m not saying desalination is the answer…It’s just one among many options that deserve consideration given the critical nature of water supply.

Hiltzik doesn’t provide much detail on what exactly that “weighty footprint” is, besides pumping water that’s twice as salty back into the Pacific. There seems to be little scientific evidence that this will significantly harm the ecosystem; Australia’s Perth plant has been pumping the concentrate back into a closed body of water for eight years with no perceivable negative effects on marine life.

Of course, Poseidon is buying more carbon credits to offset its impact, in compliance with California’s cap-and-trade system (note that, like most government regulations, it makes the product more expensive). Hiltzik echoed other critics by remarking that by the time the next plant is up and running, any current drought will be over. But the Carlsbad plant operates at roughly half the capacity as the biggest plant in Israel. According to MIT Technology Review, “The new plant in Israel…it will produce 627,000 cubic meters of water daily, providing evidence that such large desalination facilities are practical. Indeed, desalinated seawater is now a mainstay of the Israeli water supply.”

Although the process needs a lot of energy, “Sorek will profitably sell water to the Israeli water authority for 58 U.S. cents per cubic meter (1,000 liters, or about what one person in Israel uses per week), which is a lower price than today’s conventional desalination plants can manage. What’s more, its energy consumption is among the lowest in the world for large-scale desalination plants.” Israel’s desalination plants provide water to about 35 percent of its people, with the eventual goal of producing 70 percent.

I’m not saying desalination is the answer, just as Israel and Australia didn’t consider it the only answer to their water shortages. It’s just one among many options—including recycling sewage and more effective conservation—that deserve consideration given the critical nature of water supply.

California’s Deranged Energy Policy Damages Potential Water Supply

But, given that desalination sucks up a great deal of energy, one does wonder if anyone at the Los Angeles Times is pondering the unintended consequences of California’s favored energy policies, including cap-and-trade, having a solitary nuclear power plant, and importing more of its energy from out-of -tate. If energy were cheaper, it follows that desalinated water would be, too.

Outside of subway cities like New York and San Francisco, mass transit constitutes a very tiny portion of total trips people take every day.

Probably not, just as I suspect they won’t pay close attention how the rail project’s supposed $68 billion will be spent. Due to strings attached to federal funding, the transit authority will have to spend $3 to 4 million each day to keep it. Spend more, get more money to spend. If you need more money, increase projected cost and it will be granted. So the cycle of government corruption goes.

As Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute notes, “When [Quentin] Kopp (Former chairman of the High Speed Rail Transit Authority) first proposed the project, it was supposed to cost $33 billion. Now it is expected to cost $68 billion for slower, less-frequent trains.” He also points out that, “So long as high-speed trains share tracks with conventional trains even for only short distances, they will have to meet federal safety standards to deal with crashes, which means they will be very heavy…thus eliminating any of the supposed environmental benefits.”

But the project is getting a very interesting perk from the state government: they’ve decided to cover a quarter of the transit authority’s cap-and-trade costs. So it turns out high-speed rail won’t be that great for the environment? No biggie. We’ll pick up the check. If Poseidon has to buy more credits because they’re harming the environment while providing a reliable source of water? End of the world.

About that timeline: as it stands, we’re looking at a completion date 25 years in the future. That’s optimistic as far as government projections go, because government moves as slowly as possible to drain as much money as possible. Who is to say that a much better technology won’t come along that outperforms high-speed rail?

So desalination is considered time-sensitive, even though more droughts are sure to come, but high-speed rail’s merits are impervious to potential technological developments. Quite a disconnect, isn’t it? When opponents of government planning decry the whole enterprise of modern trains (light rail, high-speed rail, etc.) as an utter waste of taxpayer dollars and a diversion from solving traffic congestion, they are ridiculed as the adversaries of progress.

Yet many of the same liberal critics believe in the train with a sort of religious zeal; they rejoice in the prospect of high-speed rail “connecting the north and south”—a train that, even if it took the entire air travel market between Los Angeles and San Francisco, would cap at 8 million riders a year, or roughly 22,000 passengers per day, and, according to O’Toole, it would cost nearly double flying.


Outside of subway cities like New York and San Francisco, mass transit constitutes a very tiny portion of total trips people take every day. Yet we are to believe this is the holy grail of high-speed trains, and it demands a contribution from every thirsty Californian, and the rest of us, too. But a billion dollars per desalination plant for a reliable source of water? Heavens, no.