Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sunday Globe Special: San Diego Planning Desalination Plants

This was something I would have joyfully reported years ago, but I'm just not into water anymore:

"Amid drought, San Diego prepares to tap ocean; $1b plant seen by some as key step; others foresee toll" by Justin Gillis, New York Times  April 12, 2015

CARLSBAD, Calif. — Every time drought strikes California, the people of this state cannot help noticing the substantial reservoir of untapped water lapping at their shores — 187 quintillion gallons of it, more or less, shimmering so invitingly in the sun.

Now, for the first time, a major California metropolitan area is on the verge of turning the Pacific Ocean into an everyday source of drinking water.

A $1 billion desalination plant to supply booming San Diego County is under construction here, and due to open as early as November, providing a major test of whether California cities will be able to tap the ocean to solve their water woes.

What took them so long?

Across the Sun Belt, a technology once dismissed as too expensive and harmful to the environment is getting a second look. Texas, facing persistent dry conditions and a population influx, may build several sea-water desalination plants. Florida has one operating already and may be forced to build others as the rising ocean invades the state’s freshwater supplies.

I'm so sick of the self-internalized war terminology surrounding the agenda-pu$hing shit. Sorry.

In California, small desalination plants are up and running in a handful of towns. Plans are far along for a large plant in Huntington Beach that would supply water to populous Orange County. A mothballed plant in Santa Barbara may soon be reactivated. And more than a dozen communities along the California coast are studying the issue.

The facility being built in Carlsbad will be the largest ocean desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, producing about 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. It is under scrutiny for whether it can run without major problems.

“It was not an easy decision to build this plant,” said Mark Weston, chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors, “but it is turning out to be a spectacular choice. What we thought was on the expensive side 10 years ago is now affordable.”

Still, the plant illustrates many of the hard choices that states and communities face as they consider whether to use the ocean for drinking water.

In San Diego County, which depends on freshwater imported from the Colorado River and Northern California, water bills already average about $75 a month. The new plant will drive them up by $5 or so to secure a new supply equal to about 7 or 8 percent of the county’s water consumption.

Yeah, somehow I knew the rates would be going up.

The plant will use a huge amount of electricity, increasing the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming, which further strains water supplies. And local environmental groups, which fought the plant, fear a substantial impact on sea life.

What do they do with all the salt?

The company developing the plant is Poseidon Water, which is based in Boston and develops, owns, and manages water treatment and reclamation plants in the United States and abroad.

Poseidon has promised to counter the environmental damage in California. For instance, it will pay into a state program that finances projects to offset emissions of greenhouse gases.

Still, some scientists and environmental groups contend that if rainy conditions return to California, the plant here and others like it could become white elephants. Santa Barbara, northwest of Los Angeles, built its desalination plant a quarter-century ago, and promptly shut it down when the rains returned.

Australia is a more vivid case: It built six huge desalination plants during a dry spell, and has largely idled four of them, though water customers are saddled with billions of dollars’ worth of construction bills.

“Our position is that sea-water desalination should be the option of last resort,” said Sean Bothwell, a lawyer with the California Coastkeeper Alliance, an environmental coalition that has battled California’s turn toward the technology.

“We need to fully use all the sustainable supplies that we have available to us first.”

The technological approach being employed here, and in most recent plants, is called reverse osmosis. It involves forcing sea water through a membrane with holes so tiny that the water molecules can pass through but the larger salt molecules cannot.

A huge amount of energy is required to create enough pressure to shove the water through the membrane. But clever engineering has cut energy use of the plants in half over the last 20 years, as well as improving their reliability.

Future desalination plants also have the potential to blend well with the rising percentage of renewable power on the electric grids in California and Texas. Since treated water can be stored, the plants could be dialed up at times when electricity from wind or solar power is plentiful, and later dialed down to conserve energy.

Related: Ray of Sunlight 

How about the mixed messages, huh?

However, as interest in desalination spreads, California and other states confront major decisions about the environmental rules for the new plants.

Both the intake of sea water and the disposal of excess salt into the ocean can harm sea life. Sucking in huge amounts of sea water, for instance, can kill fish eggs and larvae by the billions. Technical solutions exist, but they can drive up costs, and it is still unclear how strict California regulators will be with the plant developers.

Long worried about water scarcity, the San Diego region helped to pioneer measures that ultimately spread across the country, including low-flow bathroom fixtures, more efficient washing machines, and other innovations.

But these steps have not been enough to secure the region’s water future, Weston said. Thus his agency decided years ago, long before the current drought began, to move forward on desalination.


RelatedHuge California water district plans to reduce deliveries

Apparently we have “six years of water” after this winter, so maybe we could help out?

Also see: Israel's Waterworld

At least the extra water will help put the fire out.