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Dirty, Pricey, and Obsolete: Why Desalination is Not Worth its Salt

Adam Scow
Yes! Magazine / News Report
Published: Friday 28 December 2012
Efforts to curb the consumption of water are getting great results and making expensive desalination plants obsolete.
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Last month, the regional water agency that serves the city of San Diego approved a plan to buy seawater made drinkable through a process called desalination. If built, the plant that will provide that water, known as the Carlsbad Desalination Project, will be the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

While heralded by some as a panacea to our planet’s water problems, desalination plants such as Carlsbad have proven to be, at best, a small-scale solution when water resources are very limited. At worst, the technology is being pushed by private interests looking to profit from the sale of water while sticking the public with its high financial and environmental costs. In most places, desalination is unnecessary, especially since we’re already making great progress in making water available simply by using less of it.

In the United States, there have been dozens of proposed desalination facilities, mostly in California and Florida. Yet few have actually been built, and there remains only one major facility, which is in Tampa Bay, Florida. Poseidon Resources, a privately owned corporation, won the initial contract to build the Tampa plant, but was never able to get it to work as the project was years late and costs tens of millions of dollars more than projected. Poseidon was ultimately bought out by the city of Tampa. Poseidon is the same company behind the Carlsbad plant that was just approved for San Diego.

That plant would cost $500 million to build and would process 50 million gallons of water per day. It would be privately owned and controlled, and has been in the works for over 15 years. The process has been riddled with cost uncertainties and Poseidon continues to lobby public agencies for subsidies.

Yet there is no real need for the project. Here are three reasons why Californians should look to other sources for their water.

First, there’s the good news that efforts to decrease water consumption are finally making good. Water usage across southern California has dropped 10 to 15 percent in the last few years, and there is much more room for improvement, as about half of residential water use is for outdoor irrigation. Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the water in California, according to the Pacific Institute, so further cuts can be focused there. Increased water efficiency and waste prevention are the cheapest and greenest ways to make more our water supply more reliable.

Second, desalination is an energy hog, making it the most expensive source of potable water. Pushing ocean water through a filter at high velocity requires tons of energy, and thus, tons of money. Desalinated water typically costs over $3,000 per acre foot of water, whereas simple efficiency measures cost between $300 to $800 per acre foot. A now-defunct proposed desalination plant in Marin County, Calif., would have doubled the energy usage of the area’s water district, already the single largest user of energy in the county. In a time when the climate crisis demands that we make our society as energy-efficient as possible, desalination would take us in the opposite direction.

Third, desalination’s briny waste stream pollutes the ocean. In the Middle East, where desalination is most heavily used, coastal areas around the facilities have become dead zones with incredibly high concentrations of salt and toxins. This imbalance destroys local ecosystems and kills fish, which also die when they are sucked into the plant.

Our nation has serious water problems, and the choices we make now will affect our environment and our budgets for decades to come. Our existing water infrastructure is leaking and in serious need of being rebuilt and upgraded. As a nation, we fail to effectively capture and use stormwater and rainwater, which are often polluted running off urban landscapes and into waterways. Finally, over 70 percent of our nation’s water is expended on agriculture, a sector that could stand to be much more efficient.

We won’t need the expensive and dirty technology of ocean water desalination, if we take these opportunities to make more of the water we have.

Adam Scow is the California Campaigns Director at Food & Water Watch. He is responsible for developing strategy for local, state, and national campaigns. He currently serves on the planning committee for the annual California Water Policy Conference sponsored by Public Officials for Water and Environment Reform. 

ABOUT Adam Scow

Adam Scow is the California Campaigns Director at Food & Water Watch. He is responsible for developing strategy for local, state, and national campaigns. He currently serves on the planning committee for the annual California Water Policy Conference sponsored by Public Officials for Water and Environment Reform. 

It's always about sacrifice

It's always about sacrifice as the Greenies continue to ignore any technological remedies that might interrupt their real agenda of returning modern civilized cultures to the 15th century. You'll just have to do with less so we can save Mother Earth, sounds eerily like the doctrine of a fanatical religious cult with a familiar authoritarian response of 'It's our way or the highway".
The real efficiency of desalination was seen decades ago using nuclear power as an inexpensive source of power to heat large quantities of salt water into steam and then cooling it back into fresh drinking water. But the Greenies have long blocked any real actions to take advantage of nuclear power, a safe energy alternative as long as it's ongoing maintenance is kept out of the hands of budget cutting politicians that have consistently failed to finance required safety upgrades and maintenance of nuclear facilities to insure funding is available for our ongoing wars of conquest.
A major negative result of this backward policy has been a total lack of any meaningful research and development into new sources of Nuclear power over the past thirty years. Most of the Greenies anti-nuclear doctrine relates back to irregularities that beset the nuclear industry at it’s beginnings in the late 1940s and early 1950s and has little relevance to the international nuclear industry of today that has made enormous advances in finding cheaper more plentiful fuel sources that have an active radiation life that only persist for a matter of months rather than thousands of years. The trouble is most of these advances have been made in countries like India and China who are using this technology to provide a rising standard of living for their citizens. A path that America has surrendered with a total rejection of real science with advanced particle research programs existing only in Europe, a non-existent space program that was our chief science driver, and a failed environmental policy of wind mills and solar cells that must be sustained by traditional fossil fuel sources just to maintain our current level of power usage that has fallen with the mass off shoring of industry and jobs. So we are expected to reduce our standard of living to a point where the Green Solutions work ? Oh well, this goes right along with America’s ongoing policy of deindustrialization, devolution to a third world sweat shop economy that provides yet another source of cheap labor for the international bankers and corporations.

Desalination has its place

Desalination has its place and it has been implemented in many places in Australia during the past decade (Perth, Melbourne, Gold Coast, and Adelaide is on the way I believe).

I found this article a bit unbalanced. Here in Australia, after 8 or so years of drought many of our main cities were staring into the abyss of providing water for large populations with our reservoirs often at 10% or less of capacity. You CANNOT conserve your way to water security when it doesn't rain and especially when population continues to grow. No recycling system is 100% efficient. The experience here is that, politically, it is far too difficult to transfer water from agriculture to urban use so don't expect much help there. Rainwater tanks, well a senior exec in two major water authorities once called it 'the most expensive water money can buy' ( if it made financial sense, our utility would provide me with a rainwater tank rather than covering just 10% of the cost as a rebate).

I believe Perth is now constructing its 2nd desalination plant and I believe both of the Perth plants include offshore wind farms that generate close to or more than 100% of the power consumed by operating the plants.

As regards disposal of the 'reject' brine, remember that most of that fresh water from the desalination plant will probably return to the ocean via the sewage treatment plant. Perhaps it's possible to blend the sewage outfall with the brine disposal to produce an effluent with near-seawater salinity. If the engineering is sound it is quite possible to design systems that can avoid most of the problems associated with brine disposal. That is not to say that there may be some sites that are not suited to desalination, only that it is possible to dispose of brine with fairly limited impact on the environment - especially compared to all the other things we dump in the ocean.

Boris Badenov's picture

Why have private industry

Why have private industry creating a profit from water.
This should be a Government Funded and administered program aimed at the peoples needs not Wall Street Profiteers.
Yes water is that important and that's why we have taxes.
Defer tax dollars from the military industrial complex and build plants just like the ones in Australia.

Maybe we need top let

Maybe we need top let california's population drop to what its water can really support

For those who think we should

For those who think we should let the frackers contaminate and squander our fresh water supply, your rosy picture of relying on desalinization is a joke.

The public is still asleep. EPA is allowing frackers to inject carcinogenic and toxic chemicals directly into aquifers--1500 of them known to date, and doesn't even bother to keep a record of their travesties. Gee, I wonder why Lisa Jackson resigned?

your idea is TOO rational

your idea is TOO rational greggerritt

San Diego contracted a firm

San Diego contracted a firm that failed in Tampa. How that saying go? The sure sign of idiocy is to repeat the same failed thing over end over and expect different results.

Desalination does not seem to

Desalination does not seem to be a worthwhile effort, though it once seemed a good use of technology to meet a growing need. However, unlike the author of this piece, I don't see any other "good sources" of water for a growing population. From what I have read about Climate Change - and even what we hear on the daily weather reports - the warming temperatures are melting the less-available snow in the mountains before it can be used in the summer for growing crops. And even if it were not true, would endangering our food supply to save water be an alternative acceptable to voters?

The projections of climatologists today seems to be that dry places will become drier, sea levels will rise, and the Southwest will be suffering severe (and permanent) water shortages. Can we really expect the wet regions of the nation (that become wetter) to be able to capture some of their flood water and somehow transfer it to the parched Southwest? That's a tall order, seems to me.

I hate to be a pessimist and "rain on his parade," but I question whether this author's optimism is justified.

This is analogous to ramming

This is analogous to ramming through the Keystone Pipeline to bring dirty tar sands oil here or horizontal fracking for nat gas near precious acquifers rather than to focus on conserving our way to sufficiency. Las Vegas NV took the conservation path in one of the driest deserts of our nation, and they have successfully avoided the need to find new sources of water. But you have to put capitalism to work for you, make it really profitable to conserve and expensive to waste, and you have to do that in all sectors at once - residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc. No one gets a free ride, and when its free to be wasteful, everyone pays far more than they realize. Perhaps one day conservation will be insufficient to deal with climate change caused droughts, but desalination should be a last resort, as well as tar sands oil, horizontal fracking, nuclear power plants, etc. The fact that these harmful technologies are being used as a first resort is solely because they offer the most profit to corps that already have far too much money to buy governments with.

just like solar and wind

just like solar and wind energy schemes only good for the planners

I can only hope that more

I can only hope that more people like you speak out before we are forced to return to a culture of cave dwellers to save Mother Earth !

I can only hope that more

I can only hope that more people like you speak out before we are forced to return to a culture of cave dwellers to save Mother Earth !

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