Giving Desalination a Chance

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.