California gets creative in sourcing drinking water

| May 15, 2014

How could a state with 840 miles of coastline not have enough water? The answer is simple: saltwater is not particularly useful for most practical applications. Cities in central and southern California suffer from a literal version of the old cliché: water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Santa Barbara, California last suffered through a terrible drought in the early nineties. The problem got so bad that they were forced to get creative. The dramatic measures undertaken included a $34 million desalination plant that could turn salty ocean water into fresh water that could be used for drinking, cooking, plumbing, and cleaning.

drinking water

California may have to get its drinking water from the ocean. From Parker Knight.

Three months after Santa Barbara’s desalination plant started up, the city enjoyed enough rain to render the plant unnecessary. (I guess no one checked the long-term forecast when the city built it.)

The desalination plant has mostly been collecting dust since that initial period of operation, but with the threat of future droughts looming, officials are considering starting it back up again.

The need isn’t immediately urgent, but officials are smart to be thinking ahead. That’s because starting the plant up again isn’t as simple as it may sound. For one thing, the plant would require extensive renovations in order to be functional. Much of the equipment was sold off when it was initially shut down, and the remaining materials are outdated by factory standards. With the bill for renovations estimated at $20 million, the city council would have to approve plans in order to get things flowing (ha!) again.

The Associated Press reports that, “Santa Barbara, population 89,000, has enough water for this year and even next year by buying supplemental supplies and as long as residents continue to conserve.”

drinking water

Severe droughts in California have led to  water shortages. From vanhookc.

Still, another major drought could put future water supplies in jeopardy. With the expense and red tape involved with getting the desalination plant up and running, officials don’t want to leave it to the last minute.

Desalination plants are rare, but as technology improves, they could provide a great back-up (or even primary water source) for drought-prone areas. Another California city, Cambria, has proposed a $5 million “emergency” desalination plant that would be used to pull “brackish” water from a well (as opposed to the ocean) for treatment.

A large desalination plant is currently under construction near San Diego.

Desalination is very expensive as a method of fresh water production, but given the potentially devastating effects of a prolonged drought, it is clearly worthwhile to vulnerable communities. As Joshua Haggmark, Santa Barbara’s interim water resources manager says, conservation will only go so far to extend water supplies. At some point, something more drastic needs to occur. Like turning to the largest supply of water on earth.

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Category: Food

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Ellen Hunter Gans has been writing for RecycleReminders since the blog’s inception. She is passionate about words, new media and, of course, recycling.

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