Sunday, February 15, 2009

Desalination - neither savior nor devil.

It is without question that, at some point, the citizens of California will need to drink water that comes from the ocean through a esalination plant to their taps. California has been in a long term drought cycle and that climate predictions indicate that it will not be long before today's precipitation levels will be considered normal or even those of a wet year.

Today's San Francisco Chronicle has a summary article about the manner in which water districts are turning toward desalination and others, mostly non-profits seem determined to stop it. It is unfortunate that the article is filled with misconceptions and error, generally in support of one group or another trying to reinforce their point.

This is an issue of major interest. The article has over 120 comments posted to the Chronicle's online edition. I wish that reporter Kelly Zito had the space or the inclination to challenge some of these idea. If you will click on Read more! I will try to do that.

There are really two issues to consider: (1) whether or not we can continue meeting demand through conservation and better utilization of existing supplies and (2) and the actual economic and environmental costs of desalinization.
"We should not be building desalination plants where other things make more sense," said [Peter] Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in Oakland. "At the moment a lot of other things make more sense."
While Gleick is right on a state-wide basis he may not be right for specific watersheds or bio-regions in this state. In coastal areas of mixed farm / residential use such as Santa Cruz County, conservation solutions may not deliver all they promise. There, even current use rates means that there is increasing salt water incursion into the water table and that may eventually lead to the shut down of all irrigation. The ability to turn to dealinaton may mean much more there than in other locales.

If you only considered such plants as the proposed Posiedon facility in Huntington Beach, you would have to agree with the Sierra Club's Mark Massara.
"Desalination is still not priced competitively with traditional water costs, and we haven't even hit the tip of the iceberg on conservation."
Massara may be missing the point. The economic costs of dealinization are one of the most promising areas for ventue capital application right now. New membrane products from NanoH2O are many times more efficient than current technologies. New processes such as those being developed by Oasys in New England project a 90% reduction in energy consumption.

Industrial permaculture processes could reduce costs even more. Consider this scenario. Duke Energy has a huge gas-fired power plant at Moss Landing, CA. A start up company, Calera plans to take the CO2 out of the exhaust gas from that plant by bubbling it through ocean water and producing cement. They have a pilot plant that can produce 10 tons of cement per day.

There is a plan for a desalination plant at Moss Landing as well. Were they to take the water from the cement plant, a major set of minerals would have been removed, further reducing costs. Such approaches need to be supported and expanded, not shut down.

Once you push through the rhetoric you find that, like almost everything else, there are good and bad reasons to pursue desalination. Eventually we will need to do it, more quickly in some locales than in others. Efforts such as those I mentioned above need to go forward, stand along relics of old technologies such as Poseidon need to stay on the drawing board.

Yet, for some reasons, I have the fear that entrenched bureaucracies in water districts, boards with directors who have stayed around too long on conventional wisdom, will push us all to unsustainable solutions. We need to have Greens on every water board in this state, willing to take on those entrenched purveyors of old ways of doing things and to set this state on the path to a sustainable future.

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