Nearly every time California goes through a severe drought—and it's currently in a state of emergency from lack of rainfall—talk turns to using desalination to replenish water supplies. Lately, the talk is getting more ambitious.
The process of taking salt out of the Pacific Ocean already exists in the Golden State. But bigger and more expensive desalination plants are on the drawing boards, causing some experts to express the need for caution—even during one of the harshest dry spells.
'In light of the extreme drought in California, people are wondering how quickly desalination plants can come on line," said Christiana Peppard, a professor of theology at Fordham University and an expert on fresh water ethics. "But desalination is not a panacea. It's only as good as the contexts in which it is deployed and the goals that are set for it."
(Read more: Pacific storm eases California drought, but state has long way to go)
If desalination becomes more widespread in California, it must be done with an eye on the health of the ocean, said David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean preservation group.
"There are constant environmental challenges involved with desalination," he said. "It's energy-intensive and can do harm to the fish and marine life with the way it works. It has to be done right."