California’s Crisis: Water Everywhere, but Not a Drop to Drink

Venice,_California_BeachI wrote a post a little more than a year ago about California’s drought and the potential impact of bottled water. This was followed by a statement minimizing the impact of water bottling from someone at the International Bottled Water Association; one year later, the drought has worsened to the point where California is imposing water use restrictions, and picketers are attempting to shut down a Nestlé bottling plant in Sacramento.

For the record, that Nestlé plant is using an estimated 80 million gallons each year, which is roughly 0.0007% of California’s total water use, and 0.007% of what is used just to farm almonds. That is to say, for every bottle of water Nestlé produces, California dumps 3-4 bathtubs worth on almonds. I won’t defend water bottling–every wasteful use of water seems open to opposition during such a drought–but maybe those protesters would do better to shut down almond farms.

If you’re like me, and you’ve ever played SimCity, you might be wondering about an apparently obvious solution to California’s crisis. What about desalinization? I mean, it is a coastal state, right? There’s a basically limitless supply of water right next door, in the form of the world’s largest ocean–and of course the water cycle means that, while water once used may not return to the particular mountains or streams from which it was drawn, it will eventually return to the oceans.

The problem, of course, is extracting that water safely and making it usable.  I was surprised to learn that California has never seriously explored desalinization as an option, aside from one facility built in Santa Barbara during a severe drought in the late 1980s’s–a drought that ended before the facility was completed. While other countries, including Australia, Spain, and many Middle Eastern countries draw significant water from desalinization, outside of Florida the United States has never relied much on the sea for usable water.

The issue has apparently always been one of cost. Existing methods for desalinization are either very slow or very expensive and energy intensive. There are also environmental concerns around methods for both drawing water from the ocean and for returning the unwanted salt. But now, as global warming means long-term water problems for California and numerous other states, desalinization is looking like a better alternative.

The nation’s largest desalinization plant will soon open to serve San Diego County, and California plans to open at least 16 more such plants along its coast, and to power up the Santa Barbara plant, which was deactivated when the 1980’s drought ended and better water sources returned. Other states are also looking to desalinization to allay their problems, including Texas, Arizona, and Hawaii, and research into new, more energy-efficient techniques is being prioritized. The Economist reported in 2009 on a promising new approach, but it was not yet ready for market.

California Public Radio station KQED posted a terrific blog post that explains the technology around desalinization, including the pitfalls and problems inherent in its energy consumption and environmental implications. I recommend it.

As our climate changes, thanks to years of inattention to manmade pollution, water crises appear to be one of the first problems the world will have to face, and California is only one high profile instance of a problem threatening cities and communities around the world. Desalinization may seem like an easy and immediate solution, but unless we can resolve major limitations around the technology, desalinization raises major problems of its own.

Image credit: Wikimedia

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