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California Is "A Totally Artificial World Of Water Use" & Desalination Can't Fix It

Like many other towns in California, Santa Barbara is projecting a significant water shortfall in 2017. The solutions, being proposed for now, are extreme water conservancy, desalination plants, and sewage recycling following Jerry Brown's diktat that  "as Californians, we have to pull together and save water in every way we can." However, others insist that conserving water will not be enough, "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," warns NASA scientist Jay Famiglietti and environmentalists exclaim "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." As we noted before, this is just beginning.

 

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.

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. As NPR reports,

Conservation is one suggested solution...

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."

Or Desalination...

Santa Barbara is reopening its desalination facility 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.

Read more here at NPR.org