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Will Turning Seawater Into Drinking Water Help Drought-Hit California?

Apr 5, 2015
Originally published on April 27, 2015 2:31 pm

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown made water conservation mandatory in the drought-stricken state of California. "As Californians, we have to pull together and save water in every way we can," he said.

But if the four-year drought continues, conservation alone — at least what's required by the governor's plan — won't fix the problem.

Across California, communities are examining all options to avoid running out of water. Some, like the coastal city of Santa Barbara, are looking to the past for inspiration.

This may be the most severe drought in recorded history in California, but it's not the longest. The last big drought started in the late 1980s and lasted seven years.

Sheila Lodge was Santa Barbara's mayor back then. "You don't know with a drought if you're in one until a few years have gone by and, 'Oh! You know, this is really serious!' " she tells NPR's Arun Rath.

To cope with the drought, Santa Barbara's city council banned watering lawns and hired water police to enforce restrictions. Some residents painted their brown lawns green.

"In the meanwhile," Lodge recalls, "we had to do something to find other water supplies."

City officials considered and rejected various options, including trucking water down from Canada — it was too expensive. One proposal envisioned dragging an iceberg all the way down the coast from Alaska. "Somehow," Lodge says, "nobody was ever able to tell us how they would get the melting water from the iceberg into the water system."

In the end, they decided to build a desalination facility to turn seawater into drinking water. But just as the $35 million desalination plant was nearing completion in 1991, heavy rains known as the "March Miracle" made it unnecessary.

"We had over 30 inches of rain in one month," says Lodge, "and 30 inches is twice as much as we get in a whole year, normally. And we were on our way to being safe."

By the time the city's Charles E. Meyer Desalination Facility was ready to come online in 1992, the drought was over. The facility ran for six weeks, just to make sure it worked. Then it was shut down. The city mostly forgot about it.

Until now.

Santa Barbara is reopening the plant and Joshua Haggmark, the city's water resources manager, is in charge of getting it back online. Much work lies ahead.

Entering the control room and seeing its big computers with tiny memories — and floppy disk drives — feels like stepping back in time to 1992. This is "about as sophisticated as it gets for this old facility," says Haggmark.

The intake, where ocean water first enters the desalination system, is about half a mile off the beach. Once it gets to the plant, the water flows through gravel and sand filters and finally, when all the debris is gone, into the reverse osmosis membranes — salt removers.

Two gallons of ocean water go in; one gallon of drinking water comes out. The leftover gallon contains super-salty brine. This doubly salty water is mixed with the city's wastewater and then piped back out to sea and spread around, about 30 miles offshore.

That briny waste is one of many concerns raised by environmentalists and other critics of desalination plants like this one and others that are being planned and built along the California coast. "The biggest concern about desalination is that it is expensive, it's energy-intensive and it has a lot of side effects — a lot of unintended consequences to marine life both from the intake and the discharge," says Marco Gonzalez, the executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation.

Right now, the sources of electricity available to run desalination plants are not environmentally friendly. "Really, it's going to require us to find alternative energy sources to power these plants. So as we put more renewables online, it will become more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective," says Gonzalez.

Cost effectiveness is important, because desalination is expensive. To get the Santa Barbara plant back online, the estimated cost of water for the average resident will increase by about $20 each month starting this July, even though the plant won't open until 2016.

Gonzalez says that before money goes into desalination projects that may hurt the environment, water conservation needs to become a bigger priority. "The first thing I say to someone who says that we need to do desal[ination] now is, 'Turn off your sprinklers.' We don't even know how much we need because we waste so much; we live in a total artificial world of water use and water supply."

But others insist that conserving water will not be enough. The drought is too severe, they say, and the state has been using too much water for too long.

"I don't think we can really conserve our way out of this problem, this problem being a combination of drought and of incredibly high water demand by a growing population and climate change," says Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

Almost everyone agrees: for a drought this severe, you need a multifaceted approach.

"Desal[ination] is part of it and sewage recycling is part of it," Famiglietti says. "More efficient irrigation, better water pricing, better crop choices — there's all sorts of things we need to include in our portfolio to bridge that gap between supply and demand."

But here's what scares a lot of people: Even an all-of-the-above strategy isn't going to be enough.

Even after factoring in the water that the desalination plant is expected to produce, plus recycled water and what's called "extraordinary conservation," Santa Barbara is projecting a significant water shortfall in 2017.

Haggmark says the city hopes to be able to buy water to make up the shortfall — but with other thirsty buyers in the region, finding an affordable source could be a problem.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Governor Jerry Brown told Californians that he was done asking nicely. Water conservation in the state is now mandatory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY BROWN: We're in an historic drought and that demands unprecedented action. It's for that reason that I'm issuing an executive order mandating substantial water reduction across our state. As Californians, we have to pull together and save water in every way we can.

RATH: But water conservation alone, at least what's required by the governor's plan, won't fix the problem. Across California, communities are now looking at all options to avoid running out of water, including making more. It's prompting some to look to the past. This may be the most severe drought in recorded history in California, but it's not the longest. The last big drought here started in the late '80s and lasted seven years. Sheila Lodge was the mayor of Santa Barbara back then.

SHEILA LODGE: See if I remember anything - sure.

RATH: You mind if I call you Sheila?

LODGE: No, not at all.

RATH: So take us back to the last big drought here.

LODGE: Well, it started in the later part of the '80s. And you don't know with a drought if you're in one until a few years have gone by. And oh, you know, this is really serious.

RATH: The city council in Santa Barbara took action - banned watering lawns, hired water police to enforce restrictions.

LODGE: But in the meanwhile, we had to do something to find other water supplies.

RATH: They considered a bunch of options. Trucking water down from Canada was way too expensive. One proposal actually envisioned dragging an iceberg all the way down the coast from Alaska.

LODGE: Somehow, nobody was ever able to tell us how they would get the melting water from the iceberg into the water system.

RATH: In the end, they decided to build a desalination facility to turn seawater into drinking water. But Mother Nature can have a cruel sense of irony. Just as the $35 million desalination plant was nearing completion, there was the miracle March of 1991.

LODGE: We had over 30 inches of rain in one month, and 30 inches is twice as much as we get in a whole year normally. We were on our way to being safe.

RATH: By the time the desal plant was ready to come online in 1992, the drought was over. They ran the facility for six weeks just to make sure that it worked. Then they shut it down. The city mostly forgot about it until now. Santa Barbara is reopening the desalination plant.

JOSHUA HAGGMARK: We are currently at the Charles E. Meyer desalination facility.

RATH: This is the man in charge of getting it back online - water resources manager Joshua Haggmark.

HAGGMARK: So right behind you here is about as sophisticated as it gets for this old facility.

RATH: Walking around this facility feels like stepping back in time - big computers with tiny memories, floppy disk drives.

HAGGMARK: So what we got here - we'll start with the aerial right here - kind of just walk you through it.

RATH: Joshua takes us through bird's-eye view photos and a giant flowchart on the wall. There are lights embedded in it, but they stay dark.

HAGGMARK: Here's Stearns Wharf. And the intake is just off of Stearns Wharf. It's about a half mile off the beach.

RATH: Once it gets to the plant, the water flows through gravel and sand filters and finally, when all the debris is gone, into the heart of the plant - the salt removers.

HAGGMARK: And these are the reverse osmosis membranes. These are only here to take out the salt. That's really what they do. So by the time the water gets here, it should have nothing but salt in it.

RATH: And that's it. Two gallons of ocean water goes in, one gallon of drinking water comes out. The leftover gallon is super salty brine. This doubly-salty water gets mixed with the city's wastewater, piped back out to sea and spread around about 30 miles offshore. That briny waste is one of many concerns raised by environmentalists and other critics of desalination plants like this one and others that are being planned and built all along the California coast. Marco Gonzalez is the executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation.

MARCO GONZALEZ: The biggest concern about desalination is that it is expensive, it's energy intensive and it has a lot of side effects - a lot of unintended consequences for marine life, both from the intake and the discharge.

RATH: Right now, the sources of electricity available are not environmentally friendly.

GONZALEZ: And really, it's going to require us to find alternative energy sources to power these plants. So as we put more renewables online, it will become more environmentally friendly and more cost-effective.

RATH: Cost-effectiveness is important because desalination is expensive. To get the Santa Barbara plant back online, the average resident is going to have to pay $20 more each month for water starting this July, even though the plant won't come online until 2016. Gonzalez says before pouring money into desalination plants that potentially hurt the environment, we need to buckle down on water conservation.

GONZALEZ: The first thing I say to someone who says that we need to do desal now is turn off your sprinklers. We don't even know how much we need because we waste so much. We live in a total artificial world of water use and water supply.

RATH: Others insist conserving simply will not be enough. The drought is too severe, and we've been using too much water for too long. Jay Famiglietti is the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

JAY FAMIGLIETTI: I don't think we can really conserve our way out of this problem, this problem being a combination of drought and of incredibly high water demand by a growing population and climate change.

RATH: But Famiglietti cautions desalination won't be enough on its own. Almost everyone agrees for a drought this severe you need an all-of-the-above approach.

FAMIGLIETTI: Desal is part of it, and sewage recycling is part of it. More efficient irrigation, better water pricing, better crop choices - there's all sorts of things that we need to include in our portfolio to bridge that gap between supply and demand.

RATH: Even after factoring in the water the desalination plant is expected to produce and recycled water and what's called extraordinary conservation, the city of Santa Barbara is projecting a significant water shortfall in 2017.

Joshua Haggmark says they hope to be able to buy water to make up the shortfall, but with a lot of other thirsty buyers in the region, finding an affordable source could be a problem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.