Exploring Human Potential

Desalination Comes to America’s Shores

Posted on | March 18, 2008 | Comments Off on Desalination Comes to America’s Shores

Our oceans could be a water source. But is the cost too steep?

Those familiar with my "Health Politics" programs know that I’ve spent a lot of time over the last several years writing and speaking about water issues. I’ve written a book, "Healthy Waters," on the topic, and have recently been on the road with a new high-tech presentation that brings water issues to the forefront.

One of the things some people ask me when they hear how dire our water future may be is: What about desalination? Could converting salt water from the world’s oceans into fresh water help us?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” Removing salt from seawater to supply fresh water needs is nothing new – it’s a common practice in the arid and oil rich Middle East, for example. In fact, there are more than 13,000 desalination plants worldwide, producing over 12 billion gallons of fresh water a day.

But it’s not just the developing world that is considering desalination. With water availability and quality questions on the rise, desalination is getting a fresh look here in the United States. In late 2007 regulatory approval was granted to a Connecticut-based firm to construct a $300 million dollar water-desalination plant near San Diego, California that would produce 50 million gallons of water and supply 100,000 homes in the region. And California is considering some 20 other proposed desalination projects for the immediate future, which, if approved would contribute one sixth of all the state’s water.

But desalination is complex and there are downsides. The process traditionally has consumed a large amount of electricity. And that’s after you build the plants – which must process massive amounts of water and don’t come cheap. As for the environment, the concerns include energy consumption with resultant carbon footprint and possible negative impacts on marine life. With the west coast looking towards the Pacific Ocean as a possible water source, this is what the Pacific Institute had to say in a recent report on the subject: "The potential benefits of ocean desalination are great, but the economic, cultural, and environmental costs of wide commercialization remain high. In many parts of the world, alternatives can provide the same fresh water benefits of ocean desalination at far lower economic and environmental costs.”

Such concerns do not seem to be deterring state officials, including the California Secretary of Water Resources, who recently said: "We’re excited about the prospects."

Stay tuned – this question is certain to gain more attention in the next few years. In the meantime, to learn more about how the desalination process works and more details about its pros can cons, watch this week’s video, embedded in this blog post, and let me know you feel about the topic.

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