CARLSBAD, Calif. — On sunny afternoons, this stretch of beach 35 miles north of San Diego offers a classic Southern California backdrop: joggers, palm trees and surfers, flanked by waves rolling in and pelicans soaring overhead.
But just across the road, another scene, unlike any other in the state’s history, is playing out: More than 300 construction workers are digging trenches and assembling a vast network of pipes, tanks and high-tech equipment as three massive yellow cranes labor nearby.
The crews are building what boosters say represents California’s best hope for a drought-proof water supply: the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. The $1 billion project will provide 50 million gallons of drinking water a day for San Diego County when it opens in 2016.
Since the 1970s, California has dipped its toe into ocean desalination — talking, planning, debating. But for a variety of reasons — mainly cost and environmental concerns — the state has never taken the plunge.
Fifteen desalination projects are proposed along the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco Bay. Desalination technology is becoming more efficient. And the state is mired in its third year of drought. So critics and backers alike are wondering whether this project in a town better known as the home of Legoland and skateboard icon Tony Hawk is ushering in a new era.
Will California — like Israel, Saudi Arabia and other arid coastal regions of the world — finally turn to the ocean to quench its thirst? Or will the project finally prove that drinking Pacific seawater is too pricey, too environmentally harmful and too impractical for the Golden State?
“Everybody is watching Carlsbad to see what’s going to happen,” said Peter MacLaggan, vice president of Poseidon Water, the Boston firm building the plant.
“I think it will be a growing trend along the coast,” he said. “The ocean is the one source of water that’s truly drought-proof. And it will always be there.”