I have written several articles the environment. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on the environment and the planet in general.
Israel’s desalination project is so successful that they will start refilling the Sea of Galilee in 2023. They get a mjority of their water from desalination. Other middle eastern countries will soon be following their lead. Over 3/4 of the world is covered in water, over 98% of which is salt water, so it only makes sense to convert some of this to drinkable water. This process could turn all of the arid countries in Africa into flourishing paradises. I know it will cost a lot of money to do this, but just think of the trillions of dollars we wasted in fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lets face it the only people who benefited from these wars were the stockholders in the armament compaies and the independent contractors that supply troops and protection details. The money spent over the last twenty years on these two wars could have gone a long way towards accomplishing this goal. Not to mention that those countries can sell the salt.
You may ask how this helps the U.S.? Well many states in the U.S. are water poor, that goes for most of the western states. I live in one that is suffering a major water crisis and that is Nevada.
“Feds demand states cut water use”
The federal government has directed the states that share the Colorado River to reducethe sue of the river by 2-4 million acre-feet by next year to help preserve sinking levels in Lake Powell and Mead. This mandate is in addition to 2021 federal shortage reductions. This is the largest reduction of ater use ever ordered on the Colorado River and represents nearly one third of the water use of the entire river system. Southern Nevada shares the Colorado River with six other states and Mexico. Every state and every sector will have to reduce its water use. Lake Mead has dropped over 170 feet since 2000, and more than 24 feet so far in 2022, exposing the lake’s first water intake, which is no longer operational.
The Southern Nevada Authority has built a low lake level pumping station and a third drinking water intake to ensure access to our water supply in Lake Mead should lake levels continue to fall. The intake also will address water quality challenges caused when warmer surface water draws closer to intake openings.
Water conservation efforts
Over the past two decades, the Authority established one of the nation’s most comprehensive and aggressive water conservation programs in Southern Nevada. These efforts have been effective. The community used 24 billion gallons less water in 2020 than in 2002, despite a population increase of more than 780,000 residents during that time. This represents a 47-percent decline in the community’s per capita water use since 2002.
However, continued declines in Lake Mead’s water level are expected as Southern Nevada experiences a permanent transition to a more arid future, the result of ongoing climate change. For this reason, additional efforts are needed to ensure a reliable long-term water supply for our community.
This is just the dire circumstances that one state is experiencing. You will find similar stories in many other western states. The U.S. is fortunate to be bordered by three large bodies of salt water, so access to this resource is not an issue. What is standing in the way is liberal state governments. California has repeatedy refused to pass legislation for building desalination plants.
THE U.S. IS FACING A WATER CRISIS: COULD DESALINATION BE A SOLUTION?
The United States—like the rest of the world—has a water problem.
Water in the Colorado River is running low, Lake Mead recently reached record low levels, groundwater in Arizona and California is in jeopardy and the federal government is expected to declare a water shortage sometime this summer. An increased demand for water coupled with diminishing supplies leaves big questions: Where will our water come from? How will we ensure we have enough?
In the face of pressing water scarcity, some places in the U.S. in recent decades have looked to a specific type of technology to supply their drinking water: desalination.
Desalination—the process by which salty water is transformed into fresh water—can be a solution, especially in places where steady supplies of fresh water are scarce. This can be done by heating up salt water and collecting the pure water vapor, or by pumping salt water through a special membrane in a process called reverse osmosis.
Desalination has many uses. In addition to being a source of clean drinking water, the technology is also employed by industries that produce oil and gas and in power stations.
While more reliable than other water sources, desalination does have its drawbacks. The facilities needed to complete the process on a large scale can be expensive to build and operate and use a lot of energy. Plus, these plants can generate waste that can be difficult to dispose of and harmful to the environment.
There are nearly 17,000 operational desalination facilities worldwide, many of the largest of which are located overseas. Countries where water is scarce like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel employ desalination technology on large scales to generate reliable fresh water.
In the U.S., over 400 municipal desalination plants have been opened since 1971 and an estimated 200 or more are currently in operation, though the precise number is not known for certain. Most are in California, Florida and Texas.
Sea water is abundant on Earth—the oceans, unlike other water sources, are always full. To be useful as a water source, it first must be transformed into fresh water.
Typically, of the water extracted from the ocean, only about half is converted to fresh water in the desalination process. This means that for every two gallons of sea water extracted, only one gallon of fresh water is created. Left over is a byproduct called brine, a concentrated salty mixture that needs to be disposed of.
The biggest seawater desalter in the western hemisphere is the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County, California. Completed in 2015, the plant can produce up to 60 million gallons of desalted water in one day. In a region plagued with heat and drought, it’s the only water supply in the county that is not dependent on snow or rainfall.
In 2016, California passed an amendment in support of using ocean water to supplement its traditional water supplies like river and groundwater. Called the “Desalination Amendment,” the move provided a consistent method for permitting desalination plants statewide, prioritized protecting marine life, and required tighter regulations for how water is taken from the ocean and the brine is put back in.
Not everyone is convinced that desalinating ocean water is a smart investment. Critics of California’s efforts say that expanding the state’s use of the technology will only make it more challenging and expensive to reach the state’s climate goals. In a 2016 issue brief from the National Resources Defense Council, the authors recommended that the state “proceed with caution.”
“Given the significant energy, climate, and financial costs of desalination, California should prioritize water conservation, water use efficiency, stormwater capture, wastewater recycling, and renewably-powered groundwater desalination,” they wrote. Only after these cheaper, lower impact alternatives have been pursued, the authors said, should seawater desalination be considered.
One of the major downsides of desalination is its price tag. Though the cost of running a desalination facility has dropped over time, the cost is still high, especially when compared to other water sources. The Carlsbad plant cost nearly $1 billion to build, and the water it generates is more expensive than water imported from other sources, costing between $2,125 to $2,368 per acre foot in 2017 (an acre foot is the amount of water needed to cover an acre one foot deep).
Removing salt from sea water also requires a lot of energy—more than any other source of water—which contributes to its cost. According to the authors of the 2016 National Resources Defense Council issue brief, seawater desalination in California requires about twice the amount of energy required by water imported from the Colorado River, and about 50% more energy than desalinated brackish (less salty) water and water imported from the California State Water Project require.
An additional cost of seawater desalination is environmental. After the fresh water is removed from the sea water, concentrated brine is left over and deposited back into the ocean. The extra salty mixture doesn’t mix well with the ocean water, so it can sink to the sea floor, lower oxygen levels and harm sea organisms if not managed properly. Not only is the brine salty, but it can also contain some of the chemicals used in the water treatment process.
The potential for negative environmental impacts has led some to oppose construction of the plants in the U.S. After plans for the Carlsbad plant were approved in 2006, the builders faced at least 14 legal challenges from environmental groups opposed to the project.
Despite the drawbacks, enthusiasm for seawater desalination hasn’t completely waned. As of 2019, California has 12 seawater desalination plants, including the one in Carlsbad, and has proposals to build six more.
One of the newly proposed projects is in Huntington Beach. Once complete, the plant will produce 50 million gallons of fresh water a day, becoming one of the largest facilities in the country.
Brackish Water Desalination
Desalination doesn’t just refer to de-salting sea water—it can also be used to transform water that’s not as salty as the ocean, but still too salty to drink, into fresh water.
Known as “brackish water,” this water contains less salt in parts per million (or ppm) compared to sea water, which contains about 35,000 ppm of salt. Fresh water has less than 1,000 ppm of salt, and brackish water falls somewhere in between the two.
Brackish water appears in sources on the surface, like lakes and rivers, as well as in underground aquifers. According to research studies done in 2010, over 95% of the desalination facilities in the U.S. are located inland, away from the ocean, and most are designed to treat brackish groundwater.
In Texas, 27 of the state’s 31 aquifers contain brackish groundwater. The state is also home to the largest inland desalination plant in the country. Located in El Paso, far from any ocean, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant transforms previously unusable groundwater into fresh water, and it’s capable of making up to 27.5 million gallons of fresh water a day. To meet the growing demand for water, the plant plans to expand so it can produce up to 42 million gallons in a day.
Brackish water desalination poses a different set of challenges compared to seawater desalination. While there are fewer dissolved particles to remove from brackish water, it can be harder to dispose of the leftover waste. And though less energy is required to pump the brackish water through filters than sea water, more energy is sometimes required to pump it from its source.
Is desalination a viable water solution in the U.S.?
In the face of water scarcity and the aridification of the U.S. the question remains: Is desalination a viable water solution?
“Desalination is not a panacea,” Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the University of California Berkeley, told WIRED in an interview. The process is energy-intensive, he told the publication, speaking specifically about seawater desalination, and it will never be cheap.
But researchers are tackling these challenges and more now, making reverse osmosis membranes more efficient, turning the salty brine byproduct into useful chemicals and figuring out how to reliably power desalination facilities with renewable energy.
States like California, Texas and Florida continue to invest in desalination technology. In Texas, regional groups in charge of water planning recommend desalination to meet at least part of their future water needs. If implemented, desalination in Texas could produce an extra 230,000 acre feet of water per year by 2070. And in coastal states, desalination could be used to help counteract the effects of seawater intrusion into fresh water.
In California, those in favor of desalination say the facilities act as a kind of insurance policy.
“The whole purpose of the desal plant is to diversify the water supply portfolio to reduce the need to import water from Northern California into Southern California,” said Scott Maloni, vice president of project development at Poseidon Water, speaking to Yes! Magazine about the proposed Huntington Beach project. Poseidon Water has built several large desalination facilities around the world, including the one in Carlsbad.
While there is a consensus that diverse water supplies are needed, environmental advocates argue that desalination is not as good an option as increasing water conservation, efficiency and recycling through efforts like capturing stormwater.
“Desal should be the option of last resort,” Newsha Ajami told Yes! Magazine in an interview. Ajami works with Stanford University’s Water in the West program, where she is the director of urban water policy. “There are so many other inefficiencies in the system that can be fixed to potentially harness more water.”
Even so, the tides appear to be moving such that desalination will be part of the country’s water future. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Water Security Grand Challenge, an initiative designed to foster and fund innovation and new technologies to meet the global demand for water. Its first stated goal: To develop desalination technologies that generate clean water at more competitive prices by 2030.
Agency unanimously rejects California desalination project
HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — A California coastal panel on Thursday rejected a long-standing proposal to build a $1.4 billion seawater desalination plant to turn Pacific Ocean water into drinking water as the state grapples with persistent drought that is expected to worsen in coming years with climate change.
The state’s Coastal Commission voted unanimously to deny a permit for Poseidon Water to build a plant to produce 50 million gallons of water a day in Huntington Beach, southeast of Los Angeles.
Poseidon said it was disappointed in the decision.
“California continues to face a punishing drought, with no end in sight,” a company statement said. “Every day, we see new calls for conservation as reservoir levels drop to dangerous lows. We firmly believe that this desalination project would have created a sustainable, drought-tolerant source of water.”
The vote came after a heated meeting before the commission attended by dozens of supporters and critics of the plan. It was considered a crucial decision on the future of the plant after years of other hearings and delays. Poseidon’s long-running proposal was supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom but faced ardent opposition from environmentalists who said drawing in large amounts of ocean water and releasing salty discharge back into the ocean would kill billions of tiny marine organisms that make up the base of the food chain along a large swath of the coast.
“The ocean is under attack” from climate change already, Commissioner Dayna Bochco said. “I cannot say in good conscience that this amount of damage is OK.”
Other critics said the water would be too expensive and wasn’t urgently needed in the area where it would be built, which is less dependent on state and federal water due to an ample aquifer and water recycling program.
Commissioners cited those issues in following a staff recommendation and rejecting the proposal. They also cited the energy cost of running the plant and the fact that it would sit in an earthquake fault zone.
Before voting, the 12-member commission heard hours of comments from scores of people packed into a hotel meeting room in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa in addition to those tuning in online.
At the meeting, supporters wore orange and yellow construction vests and toted signs saying “support desal!”
Opponents carried signs reading “No Poseidon” and “Do not $ell our coast” and included a woman who wore a plankton costume and held a sign reading “I am a plankton — please do not kill me!”
California has spent most of the last 15 years in drought conditions. Its normal wet season that runs from late fall to the end of winter was especially dry this year and as a result 95% of the state is classified as in severe drought.
Newsom last summer urged residents to cut consumption by 15%, but since then water usage has dropped by only about 3%. Some areas have begun instituting generally mild restrictions such as limiting how many days lawns can be watered. More stringent restrictions are likely later in the year.
Much of California’s water comes from melting snow and with a far below normal snowpack, state officials have told water agencies they will receive only 5% of what they’ve requested from state water supplies beyond what’s needed for critical activities like drinking and bathing.
Desalination takes ocean water and removes salt and other elements to make it drinkable. Those elements are discharged back into the sea, while the water can be channeled directly to consumers or used to replenish a groundwater basin. The country’s largest seawater desalination plant is already operating in nearby San Diego County, and there are also coastal plants in Florida.
The idea of desalination has been debated for decades in Huntington Beach, a coastal community southeast of Los Angeles known as “Surf City USA” that relies on its sands and waves for tourism. Discussion of the project has also recently focused on the impact of climate change on regional water supplies and on sea level rise in the low-lying coastal area where the plant would be built.
More than two decades ago, Poseidon proposed building two desalination plants — the one in San Diego County, and one in Huntington Beach. The San Diego County plant was approved and built, and desalinated water now accounts for 10% of San Diego County Water District ’s water supplies.
But the Huntington Beach project has faced numerous delays. In 2013, the Coastal Commission voiced concerns that the proposed use of intake structures to quickly draw in large volumes of water from the ocean would damage marine life. Poseidon, which is owned by Brookfield Infrastructure Partners, conducted additional studies and resubmitted the plan with a proposal to mitigate marine damage through restoration of nearby wetlands.
Last month, staff members for the panel issued a 200-page report opposing the project, arguing it fails to adhere to marine life protection policies and policies aimed at minimizing hazards from tsunamis and rising sea levels.
Some on Thursday also debated the extent of the local demand for the desalinated water. Orange County has an ample groundwater basin and recycles wastewater, making the region less dependent on imported water than San Diego. The Orange County Water District, which has said it intends to buy Poseidon’s water, manages the basin that helps meet about 75% of the water demand in the northern and central parts of the county.
Poseidon contends the region would still benefit by locking in a drought-proof source of water and so would inland communities and states that could gain increased access to imported water supplies once the county can tap into desalinated water. Steve Sheldon, the Orange County Water District’s president, said desalinated water is more expensive now, but he expects the cost of imported water to also rise over time.
Water restrictions show folly of California’s rejection of large-scale desalination projects
As the state continues to grapple with drought conditions, water restrictions are being placed on six million residents in Southern California. The latest restrictions are another reminder that the California Coastal Commission’s recent rejection of the Orange County desalination plant, after 24 years of delay, reinforces the state’s position as a laggard in adopting technology that could provide water security. While arid coastal countries worldwide are implementing desalination, the most obvious solution to water scarcity, the Coastal Commission unanimously voted against the Huntington Beach project.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, noting years of drought in the state, harshly criticized the rejection, saying, “We need more tools in the damn tool kit.”
The commission claimed it was worried about higher water bills for the area’s lower-income residents, impact on marine life near the facility, and reduced public access to the shoreline, especially during the construction period. It remains to be seen whether those objections will also defeat the proposed Doheny Beach desalination facility in southern Orange County despite its seemingly initially favorable reception from regulators. But even if the Doheny plant is approved, it would provide only 10% of the water that the Huntington Beach facility would’ve provided.
The Coastal Commission’s objections to larger facilities are out of touch with numerous other countries pursuing desalination at scale. Australia has five major desalination plants with more under development. Spain has hundreds of smaller desalination plants providing water for industry, agriculture, and drinking. On El Hierro, in the Canary Islands, desalination plants are powered by wind energy and hydroelectric power, demonstrating how Spain is addressing climate change and water security.
Last year, Singapore opened its fifth desalination facility and now meets about 30% of its water requirements from purified seawater. Its government is also experimenting with new technologies that reduce desalination’s energy consumption sharply.
Israel’s success with desalination is well known. It has five operating plants and two more under construction. Once all seven plants are online, they will collectively provide enough fresh water to meet 85%-to-90% of Israel’s municipal and industrial water requirements.
The world’s largest desalination plants are in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Ras Al Khair plant in Saudi Arabia can produce 228 million gallons of water daily—more than four times the volume processed by the facility in Carlsbad, which remains California’s only major desalination plant.
These numerous examples suggest an overall pattern: countries with high per capita income, insufficient rainfall, and a seacoast are increasingly investing in desalination. But California, despite years of drought and its long-term water needs, is not following this global trend. And even within the United States, California is becoming an outlier.
This year, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey proposed an ambitious plan to increase his state’s water supply. Under Ducey’s plan, Arizona would fund two desalination plants on the Sea of Cortez in northern Mexico. The desalinated water would be used in Mexico in exchange for Arizona being allowed to increase its use of Colorado River water, which is now limited by a binational agreement that reserves a portion of the water for Mexico.
If California officials cannot get comfortable with building more desalination plants in the state, they might consider participating in the Arizona project. Or, perhaps they could work a similar deal with the Mexican state of Baja California, which had to cancel its own desalination project in 2020 due to the declining value of the Mexican peso. If California agreed to buy a portion of the water purified by the proposed facility in Rosarito, about 15 miles south of the border, perhaps the economics would work for everyone.
While it is true that desalinated water is much more expensive than groundwater or snowmelt piped in from the Sierra, this cost needs to be put in perspective. The estimated cost of water from the Huntington Beach desalination plant would have been $2,900 per acre-foot, which works out to just under one cent per gallon. This is a tiny fraction of the cost of bottled water, recently estimated to average $9.60 per gallon.
With many of the state’s politicians warning of worsening climate change and severe droughts, California shouldn’t be rejecting a sustainable opportunity to buy water for a penny per gallon.
Desalination Is Booming as Cities Run out of Water
In California alone there are 11 desalination plants, with 10 more proposed. But there are big downsides to making seawater drinkable.
Some 30 miles north of San Diego, along the Pacific Coast, sits the Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, the largest effort to turn salt water into fresh water in North America.
Each day 100 million gallons of seawater are pushed through semi-permeable membranes to create 50 million gallons of water that is piped to municipal users. Carlsbad, which became fully operational in 2015, creates about 10 percent of the fresh water the 3.1 million people in the region use, at about twice the cost of the other main source of water.
Expensive, yes, but vital for the fact that it is local and reliable. “Drought is a recurring condition here in California,” said Jeremy Crutchfield, water resources manager at the San Diego County Water Authority. “We just came out of a five-year drought in 2017. The plant has reduced our reliance on imported supplies, which is challenging at times here in California. So it’s a component for reliability.”
A second plant, similar to Carlsbad, is being built in Huntington, California with the same 50-million-gallon-a-day capability. Currently there are 11 desalination plants in California, and 10 more are proposed.
It’s been a long time coming for desalination—desal for short. For decades, we have been told it would one day turn oceans of salt water into fresh and quench the world’s thirst. But progress has been slow.
That is now changing, as desalination is coming into play in many places around the world. Several factors are converging to bring new plants on line. Population has boomed in many water-stressed places, including parts of China, India, South Africa, and the United States, especially in Arizona and California. In addition, drought—some of it driven by a changing climate—is occurring in many regions that not that long ago thought their supplies were ample.
San Diego is one of those places. With just 12 inches of rain a year in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California and no groundwater, the region gets half of its water from the distant Colorado River. The amount of snow that falls in the Rocky Mountains and keeps that mighty river flowing, however, has greatly diminished over the last two decades, and according to some researchers may be part of a permanent aridification of the West. Climate change is a very real phenomenon for water managers throughout the Southwest and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the cost of desalinated water has been coming down as the technology evolves and the cost of other sources increases. In the last three decades, the cost of desalination has dropped by more than half.
A boom in desal, though, doesn’t mean that everywhere with access to the sea has found a new source of fresh water. Circumstances play a large role. “As populations increase and existing surface water supplies are being tapped out or groundwater is depleted or polluted, then the problems are acute and there are choices to be made” about desal, said Michael Kiparsky of the Wheeler Water Institute at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “There are places around the world where desal makes economic sense, where there is high pressure on the water resources plus a lot of available energy resources,” such as the Middle East.
Desal proponents acknowledge the industry must confront and solve some serious environmental issues if it is to continue to grow. Desalination requires vast amounts of energy, which in some places is currently provided by fossil fuels. Kiparsky warns of a feedback loop where more desal is needed as the planet warms, which leads to more greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, there are serious concerns about the damage to marine life from the plant’s intake systems and extra-salty wastewater.
The first large-scale desal plants were built in the 1960s, and there are now some 20,000 facilities globally that turn sea water into fresh. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with very little fresh water and cheap energy costs for the fossil fuels it uses in its desal plants, produces the most fresh water of any nation, a fifth of the world’s total.
Australia and Israel are also major players. When the Millennium Drought gripped southeastern Australia from the late 1990s until 2009 water systems in the region dropped to small fractions of their storage capacity. Facing a crisis, Perth, Melbourne, and other cities embarked on a large desalination plant spree. The plant in Melbourne, which provided its first water in 2017, cost $3.5 billion to build and provides a third of the city’s supply. It’s critical because the region has had below-average rainfall for 18 of the last 20 years.
Israel, too, is all in on desalination. It has five large plants in operation, and plans for five more. Chronic water shortages there are now a thing of the past, as more than half of the country’s domestic needs are met with water from the Mediterranean.
Globally, more than 300 million people now get their water from desalination plants, according to the International Desalination Association.
But despite the need, desal plants will not be built on every coastline. Foremost among the barriers is the cost of constructing a plant and the cost of processing the water. The San Diego County Water Authority pays about $1,200 for an acre-foot of water sourced from the Colorado River and the Sacramento San Joaquin River Delta and pumped hundreds of miles to Southern California. The same amount from the Carlsbad plant—enough to supply a family of five for a year—costs about $2,200. As Lake Mead—the reservoir of Colorado River water on the Nevada-Arizona border that supplies San Diego—drops precipitously, it may someday, perhaps in the next several years, no longer be able to supply San Diego. Certainty is paramount.
Desal, however, is plagued by some serious environmental problems. There are two types of desalination—thermal, which heats up water and then captures the condensation, and reverse osmosis, which forces sea water through the pores of a membrane that are many times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. This traps salt molecules, but allows the smaller water molecules to go through. Both require a great deal of energy, and greenhouse gas emissions created by the power needed—especially in the Middle East, where fossil fuels generate electricity—are a significant contributor to global warming.
There are ecological impacts as well. It takes two gallons of sea water to make a gallon of fresh water, which means the gallon left behind is briny. It is disposed of by returning it to the ocean and—if not done properly by diffusing it over large areas—can deplete the ocean of oxygen and have negative impacts on sea life.
A study by the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health published earlier this year contends that the problem of brine waste has been underestimated by 50 percent and that, when mixed with the chemicals meant to keep systems from fouling, the brine is toxic and causes serious pollution.
Another problem comes from the sucking in of sea water for processing. When a fish or other large organism gets stuck on the intake screen, it dies or is injured; in addition, fish larvae, eggs and plankton get sucked into the system and are killed.
“At our intake we [draw in] tiny little organisms, that amount to about a pound and a half of adult fish per day,” said Jessica Jones, a spokesperson for Poseidon Water, which owns the Carlsbad plant. “To mitigate that we are restoring 66 acres of wetlands in San Diego Bay. And we just got a new intake permitted which will lessen the impacts.”
According to Heather Cooley, research director at the Pacific Institute, “There are a lot of unknowns around the impact on sea life. There hasn’t been a lot of monitoring at the facilities.” A strategy increasingly being used to obviate, or reduce, that problem is to bury the sea water intakes beneath the sea floor and use the sandy ocean bottom as a natural filter.
In 2016, California passed the Desalination Amendment, which tightened regulations for intake and brine disposal. Proponents of desalination contend the changes have been onerous and are slowing the march toward a desal future.
Because of the cost of seawater processing and the impacts on the ocean, much of the recent desalination growth has involved the use of brackish water. The solids in brackish water are one-tenth the amount in ocean water, and that makes the process much cheaper.
Arizona, perpetually short on water and facing a Colorado River supply shortage, is looking at both a seawater desal plant in partnership with Mexico—which has the ocean access that the state lacks—and at plants that can treat the 600 million acre-feet of brackish water deposits the state estimates it has.
Texas, meanwhile, now has 49 municipal desal plants that process brackish water, both surface and subsurface. San Antonio currently is building what will be the largest brackish water desal plant in the country. In its first phase, it produces 12 million gallons a day, enough for 40,000 families, but by 2026, the plant—known as H2Oaks—will produce 30 million gallons a day. Brackish water desal costs $1,000 to $2,000 per acre-foot.
The Pacific Institute’s Cooley argues that before building desal plants, municipalities should fully implement conservation programs, promote potable re-use—the re-use of wastewater, also known as toilet-to-tap recycling—or treat storm water runoff. “It makes sense to do the cheaper options first and leave the more expensive options down the road to be developed when you need them,” she said.
Luckily for us other states have already started working on plans and in some cases have already implemented them. Florida is one of those forward thinking states.
What states in the US have desalination plants?
In the U.S., over 400 municipal desalination plants have been opened since 1971 and an estimated 200 or more are currently in operation, though the precise number is not known for certain.
Where Do We Get Our Water?
Until 1980, surface water was the largest source of fresh water in Florida. After 1980, ground water became the largest source of fresh water in Florida. In the future, ground water withdrawals are expected to level off as this source reaches its sustainable limit. New demand will increasingly be met by alternative water supplies.
What Do We Know About Future Demand?
The demand projections in the most recent water management district Regional Water Supply Plans indicate water use will continue to increase over the next 20 years. Between 2010 and 2030, public supply is expected to increase by about 29 percent and account for the majority of the increase in statewide demand. Agricultural irrigation will increase by about 7.4 percent and will represent the second largest water use. The other water use sectors show small increasing trends as well. Total water withdrawals for all uses are expected to increase by almost 21 percent to about 1.3 billion gallons per day.
Analyses conducted by the water management districts indicate that ground water resources are insufficient to fully meet future demands in large areas of the state. To do so would result in unacceptable environmental impacts including saltwater intrusion, reduction in spring flows, lowered lake levels and loss of wetlands. Consequently, steps are being taken now, and actions planned, to reduce the state’s reliance on fresh ground water through the use of Alternative Water Supply.
What Are Alternative Water Supplies?
Alternative water supplies include seawater, brackish ground water, surface water, stormwater, reclaimed water, aquifer storage and recovery projects, and any other nontraditional supply source identified in a regional water supply plan. These sources are frequently more expensive to develop and operate than traditional sources.
- Seawater and Brackish Ground Water
Brackish ground water and seawater can be converted to fresh water through a process called desalination. Water desalination can be accomplished by distillation, ion exchange, freezing, and use of membrane technology. In Florida, reverse osmosis, a membrane technology, is the most common method of desalination. Reverse osmosis uses pressure to force salty water through a semi-permeable membrane that keeps the salt on one side and allows pure water to pass through to the other side. This process creates a salty brine product that must be safely managed to protect the environment.
- Reclaimed Water
Reclaimed water is domestic wastewater that has received advanced treatment and is reused for beneficial, nonpotable purposes. In some states, reclaimed water is called “recycled water.” The use of reclaimed water is called “reuse.” Reclaimed water is used for agricultural irrigation, ground water recharge, industrial processes, and irrigation of lawns, landscapes, cemeteries and golf courses. The use of reclaimed water is widely beneficial to Floridians because it preserves drinking water quality sources for potable uses; helps the environment by reducing treated wastewater discharges into our rivers and streams; and recharges our aquifers.
- Aquifer Storage and Recovery
Aquifer storage and recovery involves the injection of potable water into the aquifer. The water is able to be stored in the aquifer and then be recovered as needed.
Development of alternative water sources has benefits beyond supplementing traditional water supplies. Source diversification creates a water supply system that is more reliable than a system that relies on a single source of supply. Diversification of water sources is an important tool in building drought resilience, increasing water supply reliability, and protecting Florida’s natural environment.
Are Alternative Water Supplies Already Being Used In Florida?
Yes. During the past 20 years, Florida has been recognized as a national leader (along with California) in water reuse. In 2013, Florida used about 719 million gallons per day of reclaimed water for beneficial purposes. Florida leads the nation in the use of desalination technology. Florida’s seawater desalination plant in the Tampa Bay area is the largest such facility in North America. In addition to the use of seawater, more than 140 facilities use desalination technology to treat brackish water. Florida also is increasing use of surface and stormwater as fresh water sources.
Still, these ongoing efforts alone will not meet the projected 2030 demand. More alternative supplies, as well as increased water conservation, are still needed.
Amid Scramble for Water, a Push for Desalination
SAN ANTONIO — Drilling rigs in the midst of cow pastures are hardly a novelty for Texans. But on a warm May day at a site about 30 miles south of San Antonio, a rig was not trying to reach oil or fresh water, but rather something unconventional: a salty aquifer. After a plant is built and begins operating in 2016, the site will become one of the state’s largest water desalination facilities.
“This is another step in what we’re trying to do to diversify our water supply,” said Anne Hayden, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio Water System.
More projects like San Antonio’s could lace the Texas countryside as planners look to convert water from massive saline aquifers beneath the state’s surface, as well as seawater from the Gulf of Mexico, into potable water. The continuing drought has made desalination a buzzword in water discussions around the state, amid the scramble for new water supplies to accommodate the rapid population and industry growth anticipated in Texas. But the technology remains energy-intensive and is already causing an increase in water rates in some communities.
“If you look around Texas and you look at the climate situation and the fact that the reservoirs are being drawn down, there just isn’t much of an alternative,” said Tom Pankratz, the Houston-based editor of the Water Desalination Report, who also does consulting for the industry.
Across the state, 44 desalination plants — none using seawater — have been built for public water supplies, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Ten more, including San Antonio’s, have been approved for construction by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Most projects are small, capable of providing less than three million gallons per day, often for rural areas. The state’s largest is in El Paso, where the $91 million Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, completed in 2007, can supply up to 27.5 million gallons of water a day, though it rarely operates at full capacity because of the high energy costs associated with forcing water through a membrane resembling parchment to take out the salts. (Production of desalinated water costs 2.1 times more than fresh groundwater and 70 percent more than surface water, according to El Paso Water Utilities, which said that the plant’s rate impact amounted to about 4 cents for every 750 gallons of the utility’s overall supply.) Last year, the plant supplied 4 percent of El Paso’s water.
Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water. The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)
Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said.
But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso. (Odessa’s deadline for proposals is next week.)
Separately, a planned power plant near Odessa is studying prices for the technology. John Ragan, the head of Texas operations for NRG Energy, envisions natural gas power plants along the coast that desalinate water overnight when they are not needed for electricity. Residents near the half-full Highland Lakes in Central Texas say that desalination could reduce the water-supply burden on the lakes. Texas Tech University aims to begin wind-powered desalination research later this year, in the West Texas town of Seminole.
The San Antonio project is estimated to cost $145 million in its initial phase, with a daily production capacity of 10 million gallons, and $225 million assuming it is built out to a daily capacity of 25 million gallons (which is possible by 2026). The cost is significantly higher than El Paso’s project, but San Antonio officials say that the figures reflect additional factors like acquiring land — and so far, the project is under budget. Local water rates, along with $59 million in low-interest loans from the Texas Water Development Board, are financing the project.
Desalination means “you’re going to have to spend some money,” said state Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio. But it is worthwhile, he added, because “our whole economic future could be up in the air.” Texans seeking a model, Larson said, should turn to Australia, where a major drought last decade spurred billions of dollars of investments in desalination.
Australia’s focus has been desalinating seawater. That is an option for the Texas coast, but desalinating seawater generally costs more than twice as much as desalinating groundwater because seawater is saltier. Energy can account for 60 to 70 percent of the day-to-day operating costs of a seawater plant, estimated Pankratz, the Water Desalination Report editor.
The largest seawater desalination plant in the country, which is slightly larger than El Paso’s brackish water plant, operates in Florida. Proposals are inching forward for a seawater plant in Texas. The Laguna Madre Water District, based in Port Isabel, completed a pilot seawater desalination project two years ago and is now looking for property on the north end of South Padre Island to locate a larger facility, said Carlos Galvan, the water district’s director of operations. Desalination would reduce the utility’s dependence on the often-diminished Rio Grande.
The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority is also mulling seawater desalination, perhaps in the greater Victoria area. It has asked companies to submit project proposals by mid-September, and it may try to locate the water plant with a power plant, as is done in Saudi Arabia, to boost efficiency and cut costs.
Officials with both Laguna Madre and Guadalupe-Blanco hope to acquire some financing from private companies. But government at all levels, from water agencies on up, will be the key player. In El Paso, the federal government contributed $26 million in grants — more than a quarter of the cost — for the desalination plant.
The Texas Water Development Board has issued $7.1 million in grants for desalination projects since 2000, according to Arroyo, the desalination specialist.
But “we don’t have any more funds for desalination,” he said. The board asked the Legislature for $9.5 million in financing for seawater desalination last session but did not get it.
Gov. Rick Perry has advocated for desalination in the past, but he has spoken little on it recently. Expanding the technology “at a cost that is affordable to consumers will be an important part of any future water plans in the state,” Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email.
Officials at the Texas Desalination Association, a new advocacy group, acknowledge that requests for money will probably fall on deaf ears. But they say that the state can help by easing regulations — for example, a requirement that every desalination project include a lengthy pilot study — and by doing more extensive mapping of Texas’ brackish water resources.
“If we eliminate some of the red tape and some of the permitting issues,” said Paul Choules, the group’s president, “it reduces a lot of the upfront cost.”
There is a concern about returning briny water back to the ocean. Why do it? There are plenty of areas that you can pump the water to inland, like the Sultan Sea for instance. Or you could just spread it over a large patch of the salt flats. Islands like Bonaire sell salt as an industry. Why waste it? We need to think outside of the box. There are always solutions to every problem. One thing we have no shortage out west is land. Inland Saltwater marshes could be a great reservoir for wildlife. I know one thing if we don’t increase our utilization of saltwater we are going to find ourselves thirsty and hungry. Just one more thought, the brackish water can also be used for fracking. Why use fresh water when we have an unlimited supply of brackish water from the desalination plants. Like I said there are always solutions.
snwa.com; timesofisrael.com, “Israel to be 1st in world to pipe desalinated water into a natural lake, the Galilee: Underground channel set to start operating in spring; Sea of Galilee expert says tests indicate more pros than cons, but full effect on ecosystems will only emerge with monitoring.” By Sue Surkes; apnews.com, “Agency unanimously rejects California desalination project.” By AMY TAXIN; ocregister.com, “Water restrictions show folly of California’s rejection of large-scale desalination projects.” By Marc Joffe; floridaep.gov, ” Alternative Water Supply.”; texastribune.org. “Amid Scramble for Water, a Push for Desalination.” By Kate Galbraith; apmresearchlab.org, “THE U.S. IS FACING A WATER CRISIS: COULD DESALINATION BE A SOLUTION?” By Katherine Sypher; wired.com. “Desalination Is Booming as Cities Run out of Water: In California alone there are 11 desalination plants, with 10 more proposed. But there are big downsides to making seawater drinkable.”; waterless.com, “DESALINATION: THE GOOD, THE TROUBLESOME, AND THE FUTURE.” By Klaus Reichardt;
DESALINATION: THE GOOD, THE TROUBLESOME, AND THE FUTURE
Recently, an article revealed that Israel has 20 percent more water than it needs — quite an accomplishment. Israel is a desert country, just like all the other Middle Eastern countries. And in some ways, when it comes to water, it is geographically worse off than its neighbors.
Egypt, for instance, has the Nile, which has quenched the thirst of Egyptians for centuries. Iranians depend on Lake Urmia, the largest lake in the Middle East, for much of their water.
Israel, on the other hand, has some streams but no major rivers. They have some lakes, such as the Dead Sea, but unlike Lake Urmia in Iran, the Dead Sea is a salt lake. The water is not potable.
Mentioning the salty Dead Sea is a good segue into what we want to discuss. Because it has no water, and what it does have is not potable, Israel has developed some of the most advanced technologies in the world to turn salt water into potable water — water that is safe to consume for humans and other living things.
Desalination is just one of the reasons Israel has 20 percent more water than it needs. Desalination plants are now being considered and constructed throughout the U.S. In California, they are virtually betting their future on desalination.
When discussing this technology, here are some issues we need to be aware of:
- Desalination is the process of removing salt and other minerals from water.
- It has been used as far back as the 1500s.
- The first significant desalination plant was not built in Israel but in Saudi Arabia in 1938.
· In the 1960s, then-President Kennedy started a small desalination program in the U.S. It was later dismantled in the 1980s.
- Several desalination technologies exist, such as solar distillation, natural evaporation systems, reverse osmosis, thermal, and others. Each method has its pros and cons.
- There are now more than 16,000 desalination plants in operation around the globe. Some are small, called micro desalination plants. Others are huge, with the largest in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
- These 16,000 plants generate an estimated 780 million gallons of water per day — enough water to serve millions of people.
As more desalination plants are constructed in this country and around the world, it’s clear that billions of gallons of water will soon be generated by these systems.
However, there is a downside. For example:
· Desalinating plants are very energy demanding.
- At this time, most are operated using conventional energy sources such as electricity derived from petroleum and natural gas.
- These plants are very costly to construct and operate. The charges to run them are also high, which can make water costs prohibitive in some cases.
- Desalination plants are often constructed in remote areas, which means miles of power lines may need to be built to run them.
· The effluent brine can be harmful to water ways and the sea environment
- The construction of some plants, especially here in the U.S., is being opposed by some environmentalists precisely because they are being developed in remote and sometimes environmentally sensitive areas of the country.
- While lower-cost renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal are being used to power desalination plants, using these renewable resources increases total construction costs.
Even with these issues, the reality is that with a growing U.S. population and climate change leaving many parts of the country drier than ever before, desalination plants may prove to be lifesavers, just as they are in Israel and other parts of the Middle East. Further, there are signs that some of the construction costs are coming down.
However, in the meantime, we have one more way to reduce water consumption that has also proven its value. Water efficiency — reducing water consumption long term — is already saving billions of gallons of water per year worldwide. That’s where waterless urinals come in. View waterless urinals as pioneers. They have helped lead the way for building owners, managers, and now, consumers, to use water wisely and certainly more efficiently.
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