Cost and environmental concerns have kept Californians from tapping the salty Pacific. But now, as the historic drought enters its fourth year with no end in sight, the state is taking the plunge with plans to turn the ocean into drinkable water.
"This is going to change the way we look at water in California for decades to come," said Peter MacLaggan, senior vice president of California project development at Poseidon Water, which manages large water infrastructure projects.
The desalination process itself is complicated and uses a technique called reverse osmosis, pushing seawater through filters to remove salt and other particles. The leftover, extra-salty seawater is pumped back into the ocean.
Poseidon's facility in Carlsbad in San Diego County is the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere, and will start pumping 50 million gallons of fresh water into the community each day starting this fall.
It's not the state's first desalination plant. The tiny town of Sand City has operated a desalination facility for five years, serving as an example for larger-scale efforts to take a sip out of the Pacific.
But not everyone is on board with the Carlsbad project, which came with a $1 billion price tag.
"It's nonsensical, it's absurd. I'll go to my grave fighting these things," attorney Marco Gonzalez with the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation said.
Gonzalez, who sued Poseidon and lost, is one of many environmentalists arguing that desalination is too expensive, too energy-intensive, and destructive to the coast.
"We waste so much water in southern California. It's a matter of enforcement and accountability," he said.
But California is running out of water — and options.
Desalination is catching on: Nearly 200 miles north of Carlsbad in Santa Barbara, officials are planning to reopen a desalination plant that was built 23 years ago during California's last monster drought. The plant was never used because rains returned before it could start operating.
"This drought has been more severe, more extreme, and faster than anyone ever thought," Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said. "I think the city residents get it, that desal, this desal plant, is an absolute last resort.""
In Nov. 2013, California Coastal Commission postponed granting a desalination permit to a Huntington Beach (Calif.) project pending more studies....Israel desalination provides water to Gaza and Jordan.
3/20/2014, "Israel no longer worried about its water supply, thanks to desalination plants," McClatchy, Joel Greenberg, Hadera, Israel
"Israel has gone through one of the driest winters in its history [2013-14], but despite the lean rainy season, the government has suspended a longstanding campaign to conserve water.
The familiar public messages during recent years of drought, often showing images of parched earth, have disappeared from television despite weeks of balmy weather with record low rainfalls in some areas.
The level of the Sea of Galilee, the country’s natural water reservoir, is no longer closely tracked in news reports or the subject of anxious national discussion.
The reason: Israel has in recent years achieved a quiet water revolution through desalination.
With four plants currently in operation, all built since 2005, and a fifth slated to go into service this year, Israel is meeting much of its water needs by purifying seawater from the Mediterranean. Some 80 percent of domestic water use in Israeli cities comes from desalinated water, according to Israeli officials.
“There’s no water problem because of the desalination,” said Hila Gil, director of the desalination division in the Israel Water Authority. “The problem is no longer on the agenda.”
The struggle over scarce water resources has fueled conflict between Israel and its neighbors, but the country is now finding itself increasingly self-sufficient after years of dependency on rainfall and subterranean aquifers.
Israel’s experience might also offer some important lessons, or at least contrast, for states like California. Now gripped by drought, with the all-important snowpack averaging only 26 percent of normal, California has struggled with desalination efforts in the past.
At present, more than a dozen desalination projects are at various stages of planning in the state, and the California Department of Water Resources will be announcing a new round of desalination grants in May. The grants are very modest, though; the last round, for instance, offered just $45,000 to study the technology in southern San Luis Obispo County.
The plants themselves, meanwhile, are costly and frequently controversial. One big plant built two decades ago near Santa Barbara, in the final years of an earlier drought, is now dormant. Officials estimate it would cost $20 million or more to reactivate it.
A proposal for a 50 million-gallon-per-day facility at Huntington Beach in Southern California would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build. In November (2013), the California Coastal Commission postponed granting the project a permit pending more studies.
Each of Israel’s plants cost between $300 million and $450 million to build. The plants are privately owned and operated, under a contract with the government, which buys the water from the plants.
The budget for water purchases comes from water charges to consumers. The plants are not subsidized.
Israel’s efforts to solve its water shortage haven’t ended with desalination. The country treats and recycles more than 80 percent of its wastewater, using it primarily for agriculture, making it a world leader in that field.
By easing its own water crunch, experts say, Israel could free up more of the precious resource in a possible peace agreement with the Palestinians.
At a water desalination plant on the sea near the northern Israeli town of Hadera, water pumped in from the Mediterranean is pushed through rows of multi-layered plastic membranes and, through a process called reverse osmosis, emerges after 90 minutes as tasty drinking water.
The company that runs the facility, IDE Technologies, which is based in Israel, recently showed foreign visitors around the plant, touting its performance along with another plant at Soreq, near the southern Israeli coast, the largest reverse osmosis desalination plant in the world. That plant produces 150 million cubic meters of potable water a year.
IDE is also involved in building seawater desalination plants abroad, including what is expected to be the largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere at Carlsbad, Calif., able to provide 50 million of gallons of potable water a day.
The Israeli plants, mostly located along the coast, operate at high energy efficiency and are some of the most cost-efficient in the world, when measured against similar plants in other countries, according to official figures. Desalinated water at the Soreq plant is produced at the price of 52 cents a cubic meter, according to terms of a government tender, and while actual rates fluctuate according to energy costs, currency exchange and the cost-of-living index, they remain significantly lower than in other nations.
But environmental experts caution that desalination has its costs, among them high energy consumption from power plants that emit greenhouse gases, use of scarce land on Israel’s crowded seacoast, and emission of highly concentrated saline water and chemicals into the ocean, with unclear environmental consequences.
“In Israel, environmental costs are not taken into account when calculating the costs of desalinated water,” said Nurit Kliot, a professor of environmental studies at Haifa University.
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional environmental group, said desalination should be part of integrated water policy that included conservation and use of solar energy to power desalination plants.
“A level of desalination is absolutely necessary because the population of this region has gone way beyond the carrying capacity of natural water resources, but desalination needs to be brought in not as the first option, but as the last option,” Bromberg said.
“Water conservation is now out the window,” Bromberg noted, lamenting the suspension of the campaign to save water.
Bromberg said the government needs to encourage efficient water use by reducing water subsidies for farming and by regulating crops to avoid those that require heavy irrigation, such as tropical fruits.
In addition, he said, Israel is still at “an infant stage” when it comes to recycling what is known as gray water from sinks, showers and baths for use in toilets or gardens.
In peace negotiations with the Palestinians, desalination could allow for more equitable sharing of natural water resources in the West Bank, now largely controlled by Israel, according to Bromberg.
“Increasing the pie through desalination allows the natural water to be shared at low political cost for Israel and at a high political gain for Abu Mazen,” he said, using the nickname of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Allowing more water to flow in every Palestinian tap has immediate impact on the quality of life of all Palestinians. This is relevant to the (peace) efforts of Secretary of State (John) Kerry. We can move forward rapidly on water.”"
Caption for both images: "emerges after 90 minutes as tasty drinking water." QUIQUE KIERSZENBAUM MCT of multi-layered plastic membranes, and through a process called reverse osmosis,
Desalination in Israel began in 1973.
..... 1/24/2014, "Over and drought: Why the end of Israel's water shortage is a secret," Haaretz, Yuval Elizur
"Remember all the years of being told to conserve 'every drop?' Well, times have changed: Today, Israel has so much affordable water, it can offer to export it....The public learns about this success only incidentally....
There is now a surplus of water in Israel, thanks largely to the opening of several new desalination plants - and the development of natural-gas fields that can power them cheaply....
Desalination in Israel began in 1973, when Mekorot built facilities that operated by reverse osmosis; these supplied the Dead Sea, Eilat and communities not served by the National Water Carrier. It was only 35 years later, in 2008, that the government decided to establish five large desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, with the aim of providing 505 million cubic meters of water a year by 2013 (a forecast met in full) and 750 million cubic meters a year by 2020. However, since 2008, two technological revolutions – both of which also have far-reaching political implications - have radically altered the water situation in Israel.
The first revolution is the immense decrease in the cost of desalination- from $1 per cubic meter to 40 cents, and even less than that in desalination plants built in Hadera, Palmahim, Ashkelon and at Sorek. The savings will grow further thanks to the use of Israeli natural gas instead of electricity to power the plants. The second revolution is the success of the plants used to purify sewage water that were built adjacent to Israel’s cities and towns. Thanks to efficient usage, this water now irrigates most of the country’s field crops....
Israel is already sending large amounts of water to Gaza and Jordan. Under Article 6 of the peace treaty with Jordan, the two countries are obliged to cooperate in developing water sources.
Thus, Israel supplies Jordan with 50 million cubic meters of water a year from the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers, while Jordan pumps water in the region opposite the Israeli Arava for the irrigation of crops there. Recently, and again almost in secret, Israel decided to increase the supply of Jordan River water to Jordan by 20 million cubic meters a year.
There were also other efforts to help out in the water realm. For example, a Mekorot delegation suggested that Jordan, with its help, build a desalination plant 50 kilometers north of Aqaba, to be fed by water from the Red Sea. Amman eventually decided to forgo practical cooperation with Israel on this project and to avail itself of other experts and World Bank funding. All that’s left to Israel from this project, some of whose water will flow into the Dead Sea, was the participation of Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom in the signing ceremony last month in Washington.
Despite the veil of silence and the political situation, which is still making it difficult for Israel to become a regional water power, there is no longer any doubt that, like the natural gas that is now available from the Mediterranean, the expected bounty of water will also effect a change in Israel’s economic and political situation. That change is likely to have a beneficial effect on everyone in Israel....
Having grown up in Jerusalem in the early 1930s, I remember the shortage of water there in rain-poor years. The Ein Fara spring in the east and “Solomon’s Pools” south of Bethlehem did not provide the minimum amount of drinking water that was needed. Jerusalemites had to dig cisterns to store rainwater. It was not until the late 1930s, when water began to be pumped from the coastal plain, that relief arrived for the city’s chronic water shortage. Still, the problem persisted to some degree and became acute during the siege of 1948. ...
In the 1950s, the war over water resulted in bloodshed between Israel and Syria. In September 1965, the Third Arab Summit meeting decided upon the diversion of the Jordan River’s tributaries by force. Although that decision was not implemented, the conflict over water was a key cause for the eruption of the Six-Day War less than two years later.
Since 1967, the conflict over water between Israel and the Arab states has dried up. In the peace treaty with Jordan, signed in 1994, Israel undertook to transfer 50 million cubic meters of water to Jordan every year from the Kinneret tributaries. The amount was increased in 2013, when it emerged that Israel’s water supply exceeded expectations....