Saturday, February 28, 2009

Is this drought emergency really necessary?

On Friday California’s Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, declared a drought emergency for the state. The cause: lack of rain in northern California, the normal source of water for arid southern California. What’s ironic is it’s quite possible there will be floods in the very area of concern in the next few days. Simultaneous flooding and drought? Only in California! Yet here’s the 5 day precipitation forecast and the area from Tahoe to San Francisco to the Oregon border is going to be deluged. The Goverantor of this ungovernable state will be asking municipalities to plan for 20% cuts in water usage. There is the distinct possibility of rationing similar to what occurred in the early nineties. Oh can we ever forget this call to conserve, ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down?” What is sad is California has been slow to adopt the promising technology of reverse osmosis (RO) to supplement supplies of water, especially for the communities at the tail end of the water supply lines in coastal southern California. Yet this is precisely where it would be easiest to implement. Florida has similar wet and dry seasons (though at opposite times of year), with the same threats of drought. Tampa has built a 25 mgd RO plant to ensure sufficient supplies and the small island where I live, Sanibel, has a 5 mgd plant which supplies all the water needs to our 7,000 dwelling units. Of note is the efficiency gains of RO technology. RO plants of today need only 25% of the electricity of 20 years ago. Sanibel went 20 years without a water rate increase solely on these efficiency gains. California’s problem is there is always a constituency that finds it imperative that something not be done. Take this snippet on reverse osmosis from the Pacific Institute: "Our communities cannot be rushed into desalination projects -- the economic, environmental and social costs of desalination are too high," said Heather Cooley, lead author of the report. "Local, state, and national laws do not sufficiently protect our communities from costly mistakes." "While desalination can produce high-quality, reliable water, it can also have significant impacts on marine ecosystems," [Peter] Gleick [President of Pacific Institute] said. Marine organisms can be crushed against intake-pipe screens or sucked in and killed by the desalination process. Further, the discharge of the highly salty waste brine -- which is sometimes laced with processing chemicals and toxic metals -- can harm local fish populations and accumulate in the food chain. The Institute also finds that desalination can have impacts on community development. New water sources along the coast can lead to unanticipated and unplanned new growth along the coast. The main criticism of RO has been its high energy use. That could be valid if looked at only in the abstract. In reality the amount of electricity used to transport water from the Colorado River and northern California is not much different and sometimes less. In a 2007 interview with Sramana Mitra, an entrepreneur and a strategy consultant in Silicon Valley since 1994, HP Michelet said, "You don't have to go overseas to look at the critical aspects of desalination. It's enough to just go to California. We demonstrated that we could now, in California, desalinate a cubic meter of water for a total of 1.58 kilowatt hours. Colorado today spends about 1.9 kilowatt hours just to pump the state water around to California. In addition to that, about 1.6 kilowatt hours of additional energy is spent just to slush the Colorado River water around in California. When you look at all the energy being consumed by California today just by pumping water around, you realize that it is actually cheaper to desalinate water from the Pacific Ocean". And this from a VerdeXchange News interview: They've built a full-size, state of the art seawater desalting plant, and are operating it at Port Hueneme, just outside of Oxnard, California in order to demonstrate the actual cost of desalting seawater. Their goal was to show that the energy efficiency of modern seawater reverse osmosis systems had improved to the point where it actually consumes less energy than it takes to pump water in the State Water Project from Northern California to Southern California, and that it's very similar to what it costs to pump water from the Colorado River to Southern California. In fact, they finished their first run about a year ago and published their paper. Sure enough, the energy consumption for seawater R.O. was less than what it cost to pump water in the state water project, and just about the same as it is for the Colorado River Aqueduct. There’s nothing like a crisis to get Californians to face reality.

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