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Giving Desalination a Chance

by Amelia Timbers, published

California is as good as out of fresh water.

The state is thrown into drought conditions with every less-than-abundant-rain year, and a series of dry years (like now) decimate reservoirs beyond sustainable thresholds. The fiscal situation is comparably dire; like freshwater, California uses more than they've got coming in, a fundamentally unsustainable equation in both finance and ecology. How convenient and unusual that a silver bullet exists to solve both problems: desalination.

Desalination is the process of removing salt from seawater, yielding drinkable fresh water. The process is not easy or cheap. It involves extensive processing of water between membranes, distillation and more. It occurs in power-plant sized campuses in coastal areas. Desalinsation plants, or "desal" for short, typically consume enough electricity per year to power a city the size of Boston and surrounding suburbs. The power needs are enormous; one could devote a large power plant just to powering a desal facility.

Desal is what to do when there is no other option available; for example Saudi Arabia, mostly desert, has relied on large scale desal for a decade. Yet, Californians are also out of hydrologic options, though we still have denial to spare.

California is not the only state in this bind; all Western states are at the beginning of what climatologist believe is a permanent turn for the drier. Not just a drought, but an altogether drier environment due to climate change. This, taken with the fact that many Western states are growing- Arizona, New Mexico- faster than they can possibly acquire water resources and you've got scarcity. Where there is scarcity, there is value. Where there is value, there is a market. California should develop large scale desal and sell the water, both in state and to our thirsty neighbors. This solves water and financial problems in one fell policy.

Desalination is very practical. Surface water- freshwater running in streams and pooling in lakes- is already used to the max by humans. Additionally, the environment needs a certain amount of water to run in streams to support fisheries and riparian habitats. Though surface water is used up, thanks to global warming and fracturing glacial masses, seawater is increasing. In fact, very large scale, international desalination could play an important role in combating rising sea levels.

Practicality may not be enough to give desal legs. The idea has been unpopular among environmentalists and NIMBYs alike ever since it existed.

Desalination does yield environmental damage; animals get sucked up into the same tubes that suck up the water from the ocean. Additionally, what do you think happens to all that salt? Often it goes back into the ocean, at toxic concentrations, killing entire zones of life. And desal, as mentioned earlier, requires a stunning amount of power. However many of the environmental concerns are assuaged through advances in technology and renewable energy. Some desal plants can fuel themselves after initial input through cogeneration or combined heat and power, where the waste heat given off by the plant as it functions is recycled back into steam power.

After soothing the environmentalists, rest assured that no one in LA will want a desal plant to grace Santa Monica's sandy beaches. NIMBYs, "Not In My Back Yard" activists who work studiously to prevent unpleasant projects in their own neighborhood, become a true problem in this context; every speck of California coastline is spoken for. Where will desal go?

California should put their best minds towards giving desalination policy the traction to get off the ground in a massive, war-time effort manner. Doing so now will yield results in a decade or so, about the time water is Western US freshwater forecasted to be in a dire state from population growth alone, holding supply steady. Water is the next cash cow; blue is the new green. California should be bullish on water's future value and commit to desal.

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