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Every time drought strikes California, the people of this state cannot help noticing the substantial reservoir of untapped water lapping at their shores — 187 quintillion gallons of it, more or less, shimmering so invitingly in the sun.

Now, for the first time, a major California metropolis is on the verge of turning the Pacific Ocean into an everyday source of drinking water. A $1 billion desalination plant to supply booming San Diego County is under construction here and due to open as early as November, providing a major test of whether California cities will be able to resort to the ocean to solve their water woes.