We’ve been writing about this for years, but now influential policy makers in neighboring states are coming to realize the potential, and the effects of an extended drought.

“Extended” is an all-purpose word. It could mean two years, or 200 years. Climate experts reckon the drought potential is closer to that larger number than to the smaller one.

What would a centuries-long drought mean? The fact is the the land-locked desert states neighboring California are closing in on three decades of subnormal rainfall — and the baseline for the desert’s subnormal is rainfall in the single-digit category in so-called normal years, and far less during drought.

We’ve written about that possibility, and how folks living here along the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean could turn existing desalination technology into a thriving industry.

Think of it in terms of the oil industry model. Americans need gas and oil, California has a significant amount of those resources, so the market in that industry is limitless. Well, almost limitless, keeping in mind that fossil fuels are finite resource that will someday be unavailable in the quantities needed to sustain what is now a bustling industry.

In fact, there is far more water on this planet than there are fossil fuels. A vast majority of the wet stuff is salty, but humans have been removing the salt for years, with great success. The nation of Israel virtually owes its existence to desalination.

An Arizona state lawmaker and an attorney recently penned an opinion piece for the Arizona Republic, insisting Arizona’s survival most likely involves the importation of desalinated water purchased from — you guessed it — California.

California also has first-draw rights to the Colorado River, over which a fierce battle is being waged between land-locked western states. The Colorado River water supply is already over-allocated, a situation that will only get worse if the mega-drought that is being predicted actually occurs.

Arizonans also are acutely aware that there is no way to conserve their way out of the water-shortage situation. There are many steps they could take, such as banning grassy lawns and water-hungry landscaping, which are currently being drenched in reclaimed sewage water.

But when drought really has a full-on strangle hold, that reclaimed water will be further filtered to be made potable for human consumption. An uneasy thought, but highly likely.

California already has the largest desal plant in the Western Hemisphere, a complex near Carlsbad producing up to 50 million gallons of potable water a day. The Phoenix area has about 4.2 million residents, and the average per-person water use is 100 gallons a day, so Phoenix’s need is about 420 million gallons a day. The Carlsbad output wouldn’t come close to meeting such demand.

You can see the sheer magnitude of the problem, and if California really wanted to get into the desal business, selling water just to neighboring states, we’d need much larger production facilities.

It’s also not a lot different from the older oil industry business model. The major distinction — and it’s huge — is that fossil fuels will run out, but with the planet warming and polar ice caps melting away, we have and will continue to have water in abundance.

Central Coast policy makers should take a close look at our future, assess our energy and economic needs, and put their heads together to coalesce on a strategy that will ensure a guaranteed local water supply, and possibly expand that into a regional industry with the brightest of futures.

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