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Seawater Desalination: Solution or Problem?

Seawater Desalination: Solution or Problem?

Ocean desalination–a process that converts seawater into drinking water–is being hailed as the solution to water supply problems. Proponents of desalination claim that this technology will create a reliable, long-term water supply, while decreasing pressure on other overdrawn water sources. But desalination facilities have the potential to create more problems than they solve.

Here are some reasons why communities need to think twice before embracing ocean water desalination:

1. Alternatives Abound.
Smart water agencies are making great strides in adopting efficient water management practices such as conservation, reuse, and recycling. The Pacific Institute report “Waste Not, Want Not: The Potential for Urban Water Conservation in California” found that California can meet its water needs for the next 30 years by implementing off´-the-shelf, cost-effective urban water conservation. Draft guidelines released by the state of Massachusetts found that “Prior to seeking desalinated water, proponents and communities needing additional water should first achieve savings through efficient use and conservation of existing water.” Desalination is an expensive and speculative option that could drain resources away from more practical solutions.

2. It’s Expensive.
Ocean desalinated water is among the most expensive ways to supply water. Producing water through ocean desalination costs three or more times what it costs to produce water from traditional supplies. It requires multiple subsidies of both water and electricity to break even, and it entails pricey upfront construction and long-term operation and maintenance costs. California American Water Company, has demanded an upfront rate increase to provide for construction of its proposed plant in Monterey, California, before it has even produced a drop of water.

3. It Could Exacerbate Global Warming.
Enormous amounts of energy are needed to force ocean water through tiny membrane filters at a high pressure. Ocean water desalination can be greater than 10 times more energy intensive than other supply sources. Ocean desalination proponents, such as private corporations Poseidon Resources and American Water, plan to locate plants alongside existing coastal power plants, thus potentially spurring their emission of global warming pollution. Facilities also have the potential to induce urban sprawl, which could mean increased air pollution from car commuters.

4. It Creates the Potential for Corporate Control and Abuse.
Ocean desalination provides a new opportunity for private corporations to own and sell water. Currently, there is little regulation of these facilities, creating the possibility that private corporations would rate-gouge thirsty populations–similar to what happened in the Enron energy scheme.

A recent Food & Water Watch analysis compared average water rates charged by publicly and privately owned utilities in four states–California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York–and found that privately owned water utilities charge customers significantly higher water rates than their publicly owned counterparts: Anywhere from 13 percent to almost 50 percent more.

Worse, corporate controlled desalination facilities have performed miserably. Poseidon Resources, whose largest investor is the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, botched a large facility in Tampa Bay, Florida. The facility, at a final price of $158 million, was completed years behind schedule and did not function until the Tampa Bay Water Authority took it over from Poseidon. Poseidon now plans to build several facilities in California, some of which are much larger including a facility in Carlsbad. Companies like Poseidon view the ocean not as a public resource but as a vast, untapped source of profit, with unlimited potential to supply water to the highest bidder.

5. Fisheries and Marine Environments Will Be Threatened.
Many proposed ocean desalination plants are now planning to rely on “once-through” intake structures–an outdated technology that sucks in ocean water to cool the power plant. These intakes kill fish and other organisms that cannot free themselves from the intakes or that get sucked into the plants.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these intake structures kill at least 3.4 billion fish and other marine organisms annually. This amounts to a $212.5 million loss to anglers and commercial fishermen. California’s power plant intake structures, alone, are responsible for the loss of at least 312.9 million organisms each year, resulting in a $13.6 million loss to fishermen.

As power plants begin to shift away from once-through cooling, a real danger exists that some desalination plants will use these intakes, and marine life destruction will continue.

Further, the brine, or super salty wastewater created from the desalination process, also has the potential to upset our delicate coastal ecosystems.

6. It Could Pose a Risk to Human Health.
A number of public health experts have expressed concern about using ocean water as drinking water and the effect that new contaminants have on water quality. Some of these new contaminants include boron, algal toxins (for example, red tide) and endocrine disrupters, all of which are concentrated through the desalination process. Another concern is that ocean desalination draws water from coastal areas with sewage and storm water runoff.

7. It Promotes Environmental and Social Injustice.
Costs may be disproportionately borne by existing low-income communities, both those living near the plant who will not receive the water and those inland whose rates will increase to support the desalination plant, while gaining none of the benefits. In California, most proposed desalination plants would serve affluent communities in Marin County, the Monterey area, Cambria, southern Orange County and northern San Diego County. Low-income communities located near desalination facilities could be harmed if desalination facilities increase air pollution and limit access to the ocean for subsistence fishing. A proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, California would extend the life of a power plant that residents have been struggling to shut down for years.

CONCLUSION
Desalination shouldn’t be used as a quick fix to our water shortage problems. Conservation and recycling programs are usually much less expensive and less risky alternatives to building desalination plants.

Food & Water Watch is an organization dedicated to the belief that the public should be able to count on our government to oversee and protect the quality and safety of food and water. For more information, go to www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

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16 comments

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6:48AM PDT on Aug 25, 2010

Of course we should conserve, recycle and reuse, but with global warming affecting the weather patterns, draught is becoming more prevalent. Also, desalination could help control rising sea levels due to the melting ice caps. As with alternative energy, there is no "one" solution to the problemIncrease Your Sales. Eliminating desal as an alternative because of past misconduct by some or the potential for abuse is the kind of thinking that got us into our current energy crisis.

10:53PM PST on Feb 8, 2009

Logistically putting ANY high power consumption plant in the neighborhood of a power producing plant is a BIG PLUS. The reason is that the closer to the plant the less power that has to be stepped up. The Power company uses bare steel cables to transfer power around the country. A purely CONVENIENCE and COST of ownership reason for the use of these cables. But they leak magnetic power (see Mythbusters and there have been several studies on this to find links to cancers and other health related problems. In this particular comment regardless of how safe or unsafe, the reports are out there to settle ANY argument about the power these leak) I will not give you a one sided link DO the research yourself and make YOUR own call about the millionths of volts which leak but are not enough to power anything alone, but over the course of several MILES it adds up, well DOWN actually and the power company has to step up the voltage and amperage at RE-distribution centers usually more then once. Then before you get your ac power (120v or 240v) for your house they must drop the voltage. These BARE wires leak a lot of power over distance in combination. The solution which also aid in safety is insulated cable it has a much lower leak rate and is safer if 2 or more cables come into contact in a wind store, kids flying kites, or I'm sure some of you have seen a balloon accident where the balloons cables come into contact with the power lines. The power company charges for the leaks

2:34AM PST on Feb 6, 2009

Can heavy Metals be removed? If so this may be a good Idea, I am sure they can fix the fish death problem we would just have to make them by imposing super heavy fines.

12:36AM PST on Feb 6, 2009

what about rain water?

9:59PM PST on Feb 5, 2009

The greatest benefit of desalinated water is for draught-stricken areas. Just imagine how different Africa's history might have been if such technology had been made available to it 30-35 years ago! Of course we should conserve, recycle and reuse, but with global warming affecting the weather patterns, draught is becoming more prevalent. Also, desalination could help control rising sea levels due to the melting ice caps. As with alternative energy, there is no "one" solution to the problem. Eliminating desal as an alternative because of past misconduct by some or the potential for abuse is the kind of thinking that got us into our current energy crisis. FYI: the reason desal is not used in most of the US is only because of the lack of profit potential. My local water plant is adjacent to an illegal benzene dump site of which our county spent years denying the existence. The newer membrane technologies can filter most pollutants and leave fresh, clear water. Check out the City of Deerfield Beach, FL's water system for more information. It's a state-of-the-art membrane plant built in an area where salt water incursion is a growing threat.

3:08PM PST on Feb 5, 2009

I have often thought about the detrimental impact desalination could have on the marine environment. It seems that governments think of it as the only solution and give it the go-ahead without the impact studies being carried out. I agree with the alternatives presented on this post, especially Ecolo Blue and I wonder if the right people are in government. The answer is - absolutely not!

1:51PM PST on Feb 5, 2009

At home, we reuse the washing machine water for the toilet, it saves HUGE amounts of water, more important CLEAN water. We also collect rain water for the garden.
We must be conscious. Imagine how many people don´t have any water at all, how much they suffer to get any. We MUST appreciate how lucky we are, we have water.


Please let´s be rational in its use, after all, we can´t live without it. Right?

11:26AM PST on Feb 5, 2009

Ecolo Blue is a better alternative to desalinization.

1. This is a device that works in individual homes, costs about a thousand dollars to install, uses minimal electricity and rare filter changes, and removes humidity from the air, and filters that humidity water into three gallons of water a day in desert areas, and seven gallons a day in non-desert areas.

2. Unlike desalinization, there is no need for pipes or trucks to transport the water, since the water is created on site.

3. Unlike desalinization, the electrical cost is minimal, and there is no production of substances like sea salt that has to be dealt with, and no need for corporate control of the water supply.

4. Any cost of the device or the electricity is overcome by the fact that there is no need to remove flourine and use other filter systems, as there is with tap water, and no impact on the water supply of other people that occurs when you have to use tap water or even grey water.

Conservation and recycling of water is not really a useful replacement of the Ecolo Blue, since there is a cost of filtering grey water for personal use, and cost to obtain recycled water itself.

Water removed from the air will not impact the environment as the use of sea water or tap water will, since the contaminants that will go through filtering systems are going to be less.

9:41AM PST on Feb 5, 2009

I lived aboard a sailboat in the Bahamas for 7 years...we had a desalinator aboard and also got most of our water from out islands where their only water sorce was from desalination. I never once got sick!!!! There are now sewers in the islands and most cruisers have a direct overboard pumping system. The only thing different from the Islands and the coast is the toxic pestisides and chemicals used in plants that are being directed to the ocean....if you go far enough off shore the water has been cleaned by the motion of the sea.
We need to be more conscous of our water consumption. We used 1 gal of water for our bathing and did not leave the tap on to brush our teeth...we could only carry 50 gals of water and were often in locations where we could not desalinate or get water...we made it last. Everyone needs to be aware of their own personal water usage. In the States I see people watering their lawns right after it rains!!!

9:14AM PST on Feb 5, 2009

I live in mexico city (almost 20 million of people live here) the problem of water is so big, seawater desalination is not the solution, I think we need better and more treatment water plants for reuse and recycle the water and learn to the young people the importance of the water.

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