Crops and people are suffering through yet another year of drought, begging for a break and looking for ways to get wet.
Although meteorologists anticipate El Niño conditions this fall and winter could be the strongest in half a century and could let loose some meaningful rain in California, that’s only a temporary condition - a Band-Aid fix to arid conditions impacting many western states.
Bloomberg News, quoting a National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration official, reported, “California has gotten the attention, and rightly so, (but) across most of the West dry conditions are expected to persist.”
Looking long term, desalinization (or desal for short) could be one of the more promising solutions to western water woes. California has the ocean and Arizona has Colorado River water.
Heading in this direction, the California Water Resources Control Board this year gave its stamp of approval on standards for building facilities to treat Pacific Ocean seawater along its more than 1,000 miles of coastline.
Carlsbad desal project nears completion
By November, San Diego will complete construction of the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere. The $1 billion dollar Carlsbad Desalination Project aims to provide 50 million gallons of water per day throughout San Diego County.
The water authority has committed to purchase the plant’s entire output for 30 years.
Poseidon, the plant’s operator, considers the project technologically advanced, energy efficient, and environmentally sensitive. It has proposed the construction of a second plant in Huntington Beach.
It took six years and 14 lawsuits before Carlsbad even broke ground. The San Diego site will house more than 16,000 reverse-osmosis filter membranes to convert liquid from the Pacific into water suitable for making coffee, watering lawns, and irrigating crops.
“We’re confident this project will be a model when completed,” according to Poseidon Water Vice President Peter MacLaggan, speaking to Engineering News-Record.
California already has a string of small-scale desal plants, but large scale desalination has not previously been considered a serious water option primarily due to the cost to construct, refurbish, or run.
Pacific Institute researchers report 21 plants are currently operational with another 17 proposed along the coast.
Yuma Desalting Plant
Another eight projects are listed in Arizona, including the $250 million Yuma Desalting Plant (YDP), a brackish water reverse osmosis plant completed in 1992 to treat salty irrigation runoff water (originally taken from the Colorado River) from farm fields in the Wellton-Mohawk Valley.
The Yuma desal plant ran for less than a year and then placed in limbo.
“This place was the world-wide model for large scale plants, the first of its kind at the time and a hub of activity with technical people coming here from all over the world,” said Jim Cherry, Bureau of Reclamation regional manager from 1990-2008.
It still costs roughly $5-6 million a year to maintain reserve status on the 60-acre site.
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Cherry said, “Here we are with a pipeline two miles from Yuma and yet, if I want a gallon of that type of water, I have to go to a water station and pay a quarter. It doesn’t make an awful lot of sense to me.”
In 2012, Jennifer McCloskey, Yuma-area supervisor for the managing Bureau of Reclamation, told the Arizona Daily Star that there was no money left in the federal budget to run the plant full-scale. She estimated it would take $25-$50 million in upgrades to start reclaiming about 110,000 acre-feet of saline drainage water annually.
According to the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, some water experts still see the Yuma plant as a worthwhile restoration project to supplement the Colorado River water supply. About 100,000 acre-feet a year of agricultural runoff can be delivered to the plant, saving about 75,000 acre feet of river water.
“The plant has the potential to play a pivotal role in the future of Arizona’s water supply portfolio,” said Arizona State Senator Gail Griffin, chair of the Senate Environment Committee.
And writing in Southwest Hydrology magazine, former Reclamation Bureau engineer Edward Lohman noted, “It will be a challenge to identify an operating scenario satisfactory to all (but) it seems likely the operation of YDP will be seriously considered.”
This February, Arizona State Representative Steve Montenegro authored legislation for a review of the study data from the Yuma plant with findings and recommendations due by the end of 2015.
Santa Barbara desal plant
The City of Santa Barbara’s Charles Meyer Desalination Plant is similar to the Yuma facility and like the Yuma-area facility is in long-term standby mode and not producing water.
Constructed as a reverse osmosis seawater facility to provide emergency supplies in the drought years from 1986-1991, it was placed on inactive mode after abundant rains relieved drought conditions.
In May 2014, a $4 million contract was let for design services to reactivate the plant in response to current conditions. Built at a cost of $34 million, it’s estimated another $50 million would be needed to re-start it and $5 million a year to operate it.
While the San Diego operation is expected to provide more than 55 million gallons of fresh water daily when it goes online as the largest desal plant in U.S., elsewhere in California, Concord plans to open its plant in 2020 to produce 20 million gallons daily.
Sand City, due to its small size, is the only city in the state fully supplied with desalinated water. Larger towns and cities using some desal water include the Santa Cruz-Monterey Bay area, Redondo and Huntington Beach, Oceanside, Redwood City, Cambria, Dana Point, and Camp Pendleton.
Turn desert into farm land
Former Phoenix, Ariz. Mayor Phil Gordon is a proponent of turning millions of acres of desert into fertile, productive farm and ranch land through the use of desal technology.
“We could turn a barren desert into farmland,” he said suggesting a partnership with Mexico to do so.
“It’s time for a public/private partnership of American and Mexican businesses and governments to build a series of plants on both sides of the border that will assure a limitless supply of water to help grow crops and feed people in Arizona, Mexico, and elsewhere,” Gordon said.
While proponents say the procedure holds promise, it also has its detractors.
“Desalination is the most environmentally harmful and expensive source of water there is,” according to an environmental group in Santa Barbara.
It alleges the removal of salt from ocean water increases greenhouse-gas emissions because of major power consumption required to operate the plants and the contention that salty brine dispatched back into the ocean would kill fish eggs.
This allegation is buttressed by Australian researchers who found “desalination plants may adversely impact the ecology of marine ecosystems.”
“As a practical solution, the process is both messy and expensive,” reported the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association. Water from the Carlsbad, Calif. facility will cost twice as much as water from reservoirs or reclaimed wastewater.
“For now,” reports AMWUA, “water managers across the West are watching the fate of Carlsbad to determine the future of domestic desalination efforts.”
Even the plant operators there are tempering their comments.
“Desalination has come a long way and is much more feasible today,” Poseidon’s Community Outreach manager Jessica Jones told AccuWeather.com. “I won’t say desal is a complete game changer; it’s just a piece of the puzzle.”