Could Desalination be the Answer to California's Drought?

Ryan Bhandari |

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The sun-drenched Golden State has always had a dark, dry underbelly. Simply put, California has no water. The most populous state in America, with some of the most pristine oceans and mountains, is dying for thirst...and Mother Nature has yet to quench it.

With California currently in the midst of a historic drought that has set off water rations throughout the state, tempers are flaring and people want answers. The farmers blame the city folk. The city folk blame the farmers. Northern California blames Southern California. Southern California blames Northern California. But all these frustrations are the product of a collective hopelessness on the possibility of a solution to the drought (other than rain dances).

Collective reductions can help, but look at our beaches and see water as far as the eye can see, and it’s easy to start wondering why we aren’t tapping into that resource. Ninety-six percentof the Earth’s water is contained in our oceans; so if there are places like California suffering from historic droughts, why not tap into that well? Yet, while desalination may seem like an easy solution, it’s actually a complicated endeavor that requires a lot of energy and money, and it may not be a feasible solution moving forward.

What is Desalination?

To cover the basics, desalination is exactly what it sounds like: extracting the salt and purifying ocean water. Seawater is filtered into a plant through tubes, and through a reverse osmosis process, salt and other naturally occurring elements are removed from the water.

The Problems

Unfortunately, the process of desalination is not environmentally friendly. It uses a lot of energy and emits significant amounts of greenhouse gasses. The process also leaves behind a heavy brackish residue that is inevitably put back into the ocean.

First off, the water that’s initially sucked into the plants has marine organisms and fish that are inevitably killed during the desalination process. Then, the process itself uses two gallons of salt water to create one gallon of drinking water, so it’s not really efficient at this stage. Finally, the residue is usually disposed of in the ocean, which increases the overall amount of salt in the water and disturbs the marine ecosystem.

Further still, the entire process is reliant on fossil fuels, so it contributes greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere. Research is being done to see if desalination plants could be powered through renewable energy like solar or wind, but the technology isn’t there just yet. Right now, it’s fossil fuels or bust.

Another problem with desalination is its cost. Simply put, it’s exceedingly expensive. For example, a company called Poseidon Water was contracted by the state of California to build a desalination plant in San Diego County. As part of the deal, the state agreed to buy water from the plant for the next thirty years. However, they are going to be paying anywhere between $2,100 and $2,300 per acre-foot of water (plus inflation). They have agreed to pay for $110 million worth of water each year. Currently, San Diego only pays $923 per acre-foot from the Metropolitan Water District for the rest of the water it gets.  To cover the increased costs, San Diego water bills are projected by raise to $5-$7 per month.

Construction of New Plants

There has been talk of creating new desalination plants across the state of California to combat the effects of the drought. There are proposals to build two desalination plants in Northern California: one in Bay Point and the other in Redwood City. The California State Government has not cleared these plants to be constructed yet, but there is talk about building them as a supplemental water source for Northern California.

Right now, most state officials are waiting to see how successful the plant down in San Diego will be. Before they commit to building more plants, they want to see the effects of that plant.

The Problem of Our Finicky Mother Nature

Unfortunately for state officials and investors who would have to shell out a relatively high initial amount of capital to construct these desalination plants, one cannot accurately predict Mother Nature. While climate change has almost certainly exacerbated the effects of this current drought, in general, droughts are cyclical in nature.

Meteorologists are beginning to predict that this upcoming winter will be an “El Nino”-defined as warmer water at the equator and shifting winds that bring major weather changes. Typically for California, “El Nino” means a huge increase in the amount of rainfall. Climate scientists believe, as of June 11thof this year, that there is an 85% of an “El Nino” winter hitting California next year. If their predictions hold true, then the drought will very likely end next year.

This will make desalination plant construction useless unless these plants get a guarantee similar to the one that the plant in Carlsbad got: that the state will use their water for at least some fixed period of time no matter what happens with the weather.

Should We Build New Plants?

The question of whether or not to build new desalination plants is complex. On one hand, 96% of the world’s water is in the ocean and we need water. But on the other hand, desalination plants are costly and energy intensive.

Before building new ones, it will be important to see the environmental impacts of the plant down in San Diego as well as how much energy the plant will actually use. Also, the data is inconclusive on how much the waste from desalination affects the ocean when it is pumped back in. If the increase in salt drastically affects the marine ecosystem, it may not be worth it to the construct the plants.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer

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