Environmental groups long ago lost legitimacy with mainstream Californians for simply being the Party of No, as in no development of any kind, anywhere, under any circumstances. There’s only so many times that you can raise the same objections and not turn into the proverbial boy who cried wolf. The latest example of this is a proposed water desalination plant in Marin County, ground zero for liberal progressive environmental agendas, and by extension the 20 currently planned desalination projects in planning stages in California.
According to Helliker, the plant itself – planned to occupy a 7-acre swath near the Home Depot in San Rafael – will cost $3 million to $4 million each year to operate. Desalination eats up a lot of energy due to the high pressure needed to push seawater through extremely fine membranes that extract the salt.
[From Key Marin County hearing on desalination]
First a little background, desalination works by pumping large amounts of sea water through a series of membranes, a process called reverse osmosis, with the resulting product being high quality drinking water and a sea salt sludge that is simply pumped back out to where salt is already abundant, the ocean. The process is, by any standard, old technology that has been adopted in places where naturally occurring water is not in abundance, like the Middle East, and the increased cost, roughly 4-5x the cost of acquiring drinking water from a watershed or a groundwater system, is a necessary tradeoff. Tampa Bay, Florida has successfully operated a large scale desalination plant for years now.
In California these same environmental groups have waged a war against the citizenry by attacking water diverted for the agribusiness, California’s largest economic sector and significant supplier of food to the country as a whole and for export internationally, and for population centers, a war that has been joined by the Federal government in what amounts to a massive violation of states rights as bureaucrats in Washington are determining how the State of California uses California water resources.
Beyond simply a matter of building new dams, the state finds itself in a position of defending existing dams that environmental groups would prefer to see razed, which means no new supply is being added the state water system while the population continues to expand. Conservation alone simply cannot make up the difference, that old song has been pushed on Californians for 3 decades and the underlying water supply situation has not changed. Conservation is good, we practice it here at our house, but it’s not enough… it’s like suggesting that if everyone simply drove 55 mph we would not have an energy crisis.
California is for the most part arid. We don’t get any significant rain for almost half of the year, we cannot escape drought cycles, and water that is collected is under assault from a hot and dry climate that results in massive evaporation. We have plenty of water, it’s just in the snowpack and rivers which is the heart of environmental objections. They would prefer to see rivers flow to the ocean instead of providing water to the citizenry. It’s one of those let them eat cake moments in public policy…
Further complicating matters is that California’s population centers depend on water collected far way and delivered by pipeline. This water infrastructure has been neglected for decades as Sacramento politicians neglected their responsibility for good long term stewardship of public infrastructure in the name of short term measures more geared to satisfying powerful allies than serving the public good. As a result we have a water system that is greatly as risk of natural disaster which could result in outright cutoff of water service to major cities. You want to see a civil war then cutoff a water supply… there is nothing as basic as clean water for a household in this state or anywhere else.
So we have environmental groups that have restricted the development of water supply and have in their sights a reduction in current capacity now objecting to development of a new water resource on the grounds that it is expensive, uses too much electricity, and has alleged but unproven risk for returning the salt sludge to the ocean. Basically it’s “no, no, no, and hell no” and while we are on the subject, I am not hearing the “too much electricity” argument being applied to the fleets of plug in electric vehicles being imagined by environmental groups…
I say build massive desalination plants, supply them with abundant nuclear power, and refine the sea sludge into food grade “fine grey sea salt” that can be sold in Whole Foods. Win win.
UPDATE: After writing this I recalled reading about molten salt technology. Basically the way it works is that a salt sludge mixture is used as a thermal energy store and then used to power electricity generators. The salt sludge flows through solar panels which heat the mixture to approximately 1k degree (F), the heat can be stored for up to a week is used to power steam generators which produce electricity. This is a great example of how a waste byproduct can be used productively and why projects like desalination deserve to move forward.