Friday, June 5, 2015

Developments in Desalination Technology Have Huge Benefits for California

6/5/15 - With the water shortage in California reaching frightening levels, private companies and governmental entities alike are searching for a solution. Desalination, while not a complete solution to the problem, may help to lessen the effects of the drought and provide more fresh water for public consumption. Through a process called reverse osmosis, desalination plants remove salt and other impurities from ocean water, thereby converting it to freshwater. Tony Perry’s article in the L.A. Times looks into the pros and cons of desalination on the environment and the economy.

San Diego County, referred to as “the Silicon Valley of desalination,” is a major hub of water reuse as well as the birthplace of commercial reverse osmosis. Over 3,000 workers are employed by dozens of companies to construct the membranes required for the desalination process. For the members of the International Desalination Association World Congress, a large point of interest in San Diego County is a $1 billion desalination plant currently being constructed in Carlsbad. This plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, is being designed with help from Israeli experts in the field, who plan to remain involved with the plant after it has been completed.

San Diego County officials hope that an upcoming tour of the Carlsbad plant by the International Desalination Association will help to dispel some of the concerns raised by critics of desalination. Environmentalists fear the damage that desalination can cause to the oceans and surrounding ecosystems. The water intake systems can kill fish, and the highly concentrated brine left over after the removal of fresh water from the seawater can cause pollution. However, Poseidon Water, the company in charge of building the plant, claims that they have a way of reducing fish kills and have a plan to dilute brine before disposal, thereby reducing environmental issues.

Energy efficiency can be a big problem for many desalination plants. The entire process requires a large amount of energy to pump water, perform the reverse osmosis, and purify the liquid. The Carlsbad plant is being built at the Encina Power Station and, by using the same water intake system, energy usage can be reduced significantly. Many newly developed technologies are helping desalination plants to become more efficient and even helping reduce costs. Although the cost of water from the plant will be higher (prices are expected to rise on average by $5 per month), San Diego officials still feel that the trade-off is worth it, since this water will be unaffected by droughts throughout the rest of the state.

The San Diego County Water Authority has already promised to buy the Carlsbad plant’s water for the next 30 years, with a goal of having desalination provide over 7% of total water consumed within the next 5 years. Other desalination plants have been proposed, but between lawsuits and getting permits from the federal government, it is not likely that such plans will reach fruition anytime soon. While desalination plants have some environmental and economic drawbacks, Perry concludes that they pose the greatest chance for California to regain control over its water supplies. After all, the Pacific Ocean is a source of water that has little risk of running out.  

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