11/05/2009 08:42 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Water desalination on the public's dime? A Poseidon adventure.

Desalination is held in great promise for a thirsty world where more than a billion people don't have adequate access to clean water and where California, Georgia and the American Southwest face revolving water-supply emergencies. As we've reported before at Circle of Blue, the U.S. General Accounting Office predicts that at least 36 states will face water scarcity within the next five years.

But when our colleague Dr. Peter Gleick crunched the numbers of the ambitious Poseidon water desalination project in Carlsbad, Calif., he found they are adding up to a massive public subsidy at the expense of more cost-effective water-efficiency improvements. It's a project, he says, that could sully other efforts:

…the first effort to build a major desalination facility for urban water supply in California, by the private group Poseidon Resources, is poorly designed, badly financed, and environmentally unsatisfactory. It is going to become the new case study in how NOT to do desalination, replacing the previous case study (also of a Poseidon effort) of how not to do desalination – Tampa Bay, Florida.

What is the latest problem? The money. The desperate drive to do a desalination project in California is leading to a set of financial travesties. Despite their initial claim that Poseidon would bear all of the financial burden and risk associated with the private plan to desalinate ocean water at an old power plant in Carlsbad and sell it to public water agencies, Poseidon now says it needs massive public subsidies.

It's not about proving or disproving desalination as one solution to a global water crisis, or about bringing water to the residents of San Diego County. It's about proving its financial and long-term viability. It's also about the risk of hasty decisions for an ever water-craving planet. As Gleick puts it: "Everyone I talk to in private knows this, but no one seems willing to say it in public. Let me: The Emperor (or in this case, the god Poseidon) has no clothes."

Read the rest in his column, "Doing Desalination Wrong: Poseidon on the Public Dole."

For more on U.S. water challenges, see "Water Issues Dividing and Challenging the U.S."