California Sand Fire: Desalination Plants May Be State’s Only Solution Despite Environmental, Energy Concerns

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California Sand Fire
Marin County firefighter Brett Grayson walks through a vineyard looking for spot fires from the fast-moving wildfire called "Sand Fire," near Plymouth, California July 26, 2014. As California becomes more arid, it will need to take a cue from countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, and look to the sea for an ample supply of water in the future.

From the Modoc National Forest just south of Oregon to the arid scrub in San Diego County near the Mexican border, California has once again been wracked by summertime drought and wildfires threatening thousands of homes. Firefighting teams Sunday battled rapidly moving blazes in dry grassland near the state capitol of Sacramento where about 4,000 acres of the so-called Sand Fire was forcing evacuations of hundreds of homes.

"The fire's moving in and around homes in the area," said Lynn Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "The leading edge is bumping up against residences as we speak." As of Sunday morning that fire was barely 20 percent contained and nearly 1,500 fire fighters were dispatched to the area to beat back the flames.

As drought-stricken California’s main source of water is being rapidly depleted, more people are calling for California to speed up important decisions about how to deal with the state’s long-term needs. One of the solutions could be something parts of the Middle East began adopting decades ago: desalination plants, an energy-intensive process of converting seawater into drinking water.

Meeting California’s water needs might not help combat the effect of global warming, but an ample supply of water would at least help keep back the dry conditions from around residential communities, and it would help the state’s massive agricultural industry meet its own water needs.

Currently California is building the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere in Carlsbad. At a cost of $1 billion, the plant will produce 50 million gallons a day for San Diego County by 2016. The plant, and others like it in California, use reverse osmosis technology, which uses less energy than the thermal desalination process of evaporating and re-condensing seawater. Fourteen other desalination plants are in the works. Critics say the process is too costly.

"This [Carlsbad project] is going to be the pig that will try for years to find the right shade of lipstick," Marco Gonzalez, an attorney who sued on behalf of environmental groups that tried to halt construction, told the San Jose Mercury News last month. "This project will show that the water is just too expensive."

“As the cost of imported water is on the rise and technological advances are bringing down the cost of converting seawater into potable water, desalination has become the only truly drought-proof process to deliver a new source of clean, safe, high-quality water in a cost-effective and environmentally sound way,” Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times recently.

It’s not just the business community ringing alarm bells.

“Eventually, we’ll have to develop new sources of water,” David Sedlak, a University of California-Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering, recently told e360, Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies digest. Sedlak outlines the three main “pillars” of water sustainability: desalination, wastewater recycling and capturing rainwater.

While desalination is a costly, energy intensive process -- one that entails boiling massive amounts of seawater and then re-condensing it -- the rising cost of water in the state is crippling farmers’ budgets. The cost of water for agriculture near Fresno has jumped to $1,100 per acre foot from about $140 last year, Businessweek reported. Other California water districts have seen similar price spikes.

One of the main concerns about desalination, aside from the energy intensive nature of the process, is the effects on the environment. Marine life advocates say desalination plants suck up marine life through their intakes, which can have a devastating effect on the ecosystems near the plants.

Earlier this month, California American Water, a subsidiary of American Water Works Company Inc. (NYSE: AWK), said it has tested a different process near Monterey, California, where seawater is drawn from beneath the ground near the coast. The alternative, the company claims, could suck up seawater from slanted wells beneath the ground without harming sea life.

Another experiment of sorts is taking place in the state’s central San Joaquin Valley where WaterFX has erected an experimental solar array that takes brackish water, which is too salty to use in agriculture, and uses the heat from the sun to desalinate the water.

With desalination popping up in increasingly arid parts of the globe -- from Israel to Australia -- California may finally be coming to terms with its grim reality: It’s becoming a desert, and only technology will be able to help beat back the effects of an arid, hotter climate.

Editor's Note: Story was changed to point out the Carlsbad desalination plant will use reverse osmosis technology, which is less energy intensive than thermal desalination. Also, the plant will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere, not the world. 

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