After three years of drought, California’s reservoirs are filled with more mud than water. Many farmers can’t irrigate their fields and have no choice but to leave them fallow.

As insurance against future droughts, San Diego is turning to a vast and largely untapped body of water for help: the Pacific Ocean. A huge desalination plant is under construction just outside the city that is expected to provide 7% of the arid region’s water needs.

“Desalination isn’t dependent on rainfall or snowpack,” says Peter MacLaggan, a senior vice president with Poseidon Resources, the company that is developing the plant in Carlsbad, Calif. “Traditional sources have been cheap and plentiful, and that’s not necessarily the case anymore.”

Desalinization is an old technology used widely in the Middle East that is getting new attention in the United States because of innovation and lower costs. With growing populations and increasingly scarce water, more…

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