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Desalination just makes plain sense

POSTED December 5, 2014 9:47 p.m.

Desalination isn’t just an obvious solution for the state’s record drought; it’s actually the only solution that will produce a reliable, drought proof water source. And while a comprehensive water management strategy is crucial in California, you can’t manage what you don’t have. The best most reliable measurement of California's water supply is the Sierra snowpack. In the 1960s one could find snow pack in the Sierra's at 10,000 feet year around.  Today you're lucky if you can find snow at 14,000 feet, and the April 2014 rains didn't come close to solving the states mounting water crisis. According to the Department of Water Resources the snowpack and rain measurements are so far below normal that even sustained rainfall won't end the drought.


Desalination, along with conservation and water recycling, can substantially begin to address the state's water shortages. Fortunately, advancements in technology have greatly reduced the cost of desalination, as well as the energy consumption and the impact on the environment. In fact, desal costs have been cut in half over the last 20 years, while the cost of imported water has continued to increase. Within a decade, the cost of the two are expected to even out. 


But we don’t have to wait that long for desal to become cost-effective – it is today. Residents need only look south to Carlsbad, where the largest plant in North America is set to begin operation next year. Their desalinated water will cost roughly half a penny to produce and deliver or less than $1 a day for the average resident. When compared to the cost of the drought on our state and local economy, it’s a small price to pay- especially when you factor in the revenue desal can bring to a community. In just one southern California city, a proposed plant is expected to create more than 3,000 construction jobs and bring in more than $2 million annually in tax revenue, all while producing 50 million gallons of safe, reliable, drought-proof water per day at no risk to taxpayers. And every gallon of desal water is one less gallon that needs to come from Northern California’s precious water supply.


Recent improvements in desalination technology have also greatly reduced energy consumption. Many desalination plants today utilize energy recovery devices that consume no electrical power and recycle otherwise lost energy, much like a hybrid car, reducing energy consumption of the reverse osmosis process by nearly half. Today, the desalination process consumes little more energy than the alternative of transporting fresh water over large distances. To put it into every day terms, the energy needed to produce a household’s share of desalinated water from the Carlsbad plant is less than the amount needed to power one standard 42-inch plasma TV.


Modern seawater desalination projects can be built and operated without significant, negative effects on the marine environment, wetlands, or environmentally sensitive habitat areas. California’s environmental regulations are some of the most stringent in the world, which speaks to the level of environmental sensitivities surrounding seawater intake systems approved to operate here. By using existing intake systems, impingement loss – the impact to sea life – is estimated to be less than the daily fish eaten by one brown pelican and annual larval i.e. entrainment losses are comparable to the annual bio-productivity of 5 adult female halibut fish. For context, the  majority of larvae are lost to predation, exposure to wind and wave action and inability to find appropriate food.


Some have unfairly pointed to the closing of some desalination plants in eastern Australia as proof that desal is not the answer. But what those critics fail to explain is that like the eastern part of the United States, there is plenty of rainfall in the eastern part of Australia.  And, like the United States, the western part of the country is facing severe drought. In fact, western Australia is not only the home of several desalination plants that are working at capacity, but new desal plants are opening there each year. In California, we can learn a lot from the experiences of western Australia and how they have addressed their water needs.


We agree with the Turlock Municipal Services Department, California should be taking advantage of every possible existing resource and practice in order to create a long-term, sustainable water plan.  And with drought conditions coming for the foreseeable future, desal just makes plain sense.


— Lowell Young, president of the Yosemite Audubon


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