Diversification or loading order? Divergent water-energy politics and the contradictions of desalination in southern California

Joe Williams
Durham University, Department of Geography, Durham, UK; joseph.g.williams@durham.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: This paper explores the contradictory and sometimes incompatible imperatives towards enhancing water supply reliability and addressing the water-energy nexus. Using the highly contested development of seawater desalination for municipal water supply in the San Diego metropolitan region as an analytical entry point, the paper excavates divergent water-energy politics emerging in California. Two underlying paradigm shifts of water governance are identified. First, supply diversification represents an attempt to increase reliability through the development of multiple decentralised water sources. Second, the notion of a loading order is being promoted by certain groups as a way of prioritising different water source options according to sustainability criteria, including energy footprint. Drawing on the concept of the socio-ecological fix, the paper argues that seawater desalination – as a technological adaptation to water stress – occupies a paradoxical position, being consistent with diversification, but representing a water-energy trade-off inconsistent with the loading order. This has resulted, the paper suggests, in a polarised debate between desalination and wastewater recycling as alternative climate-independent sources of freshwater. As such, the disputes over desalination in San Diego are understood to be a crucible for broader politics of resource governance transitions.

KEYWORDS: Water-energy nexus, desalination, political ecology, diversification, loading order, California