California Has an Endless Supply of Water in the Ocean

By Ahmad Sabbagh ’17

Desalination in California

What was once considered a project too expensive and unsustainable to carry out might finally have turned to be a life-saving technology with a feasible implementation. Ocean desalination plants have been spreading throughout water-scarce areas in California, Texas, and Florida. Now, the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere is under construction in San Diego County, where it will produce about 50 million gallons of drinking water a day. The construction of more plants is also under debate and being studied in over a dozen other California coastal communities.

Desalination plants have been a great success in chronically dry regions, such as the Middle East. California plants hope to emulate that success; however, there are concerns about what happens when the current water crisis lifts and the desalination plants are no longer needed. A plant in Santa Barbara, built a quarter-century ago, faced such a situation and was promptly shut down. The plant, which may be reactivated soon with the current water crisis, was seen as the embodiment of unnecessarily large expenses and wasted resources. The reactivation of this plant will cause the price of water to hike again, yet clearly more expensive water is a better alternative to no water. Hence, the construction of these plants, even if they may not be used after a few years, is important to have a resource to fall back on during future periods of water scarcity.

While California residents may not appreciate higher water bills, it is the environmental concerns that have been pushing against the construction of new plants. Desalination plants operate by pumping seawater through the plant and dumping excess salt back into the ocean, an operation that may harm marine life without strict and costly regulation measures. Environmentalists have been advocating measures that would reduce water use to amounts California’s existing water supply can suffice. However, all the measures that have been placed to reduce water use, measures that have cut water use by 12 percent since 1990 despite a 30% jump in population, have not been enough to offset the ever decreasing water supply. California has turned to desalination plants as a last resort.

Poseidon Water, the company developing the new San Diego plant, has promised to counter the environmental damages the plant may cause. There is also a future for the sustainability of desalination plants with the rising renewable energy sources in California and Texas. Plant production may be amplified when solar and wind energy is abundant, and the treated water can be stored for times when renewable energy is scarce. As desalination and renewable energy technologies evolve and become more efficient, desalination plants look to be reliable and environmentally friendly new water sources for the parched and water deficient.


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