Desalination - Energy Down the Drain

This is a guest essay by Debbie Cook, former Mayor of Huntington Beach, CA and ASPO-USA Board member. Debbie recently lost the election for the 46th Congressional district in California. It is a testament to our nations current focus that we have few leaders like her in DC aware that energy and natural resources are ultimately what we have to spend. Her essay looks at the energy required to turn ocean water into potable water. The interrelationships of energy and water in our social systems will be paramount going forward--as we need water to procure most energy and energy to procure most water. And we are learning that more money won't magically procure more of either.

Energy Down the Drain

The Next Worst Idea

The next worst idea to turning tar sands into synthetic crude is turning ocean water into municipal drinking water. Sounds great until you zoom in on the environmental costs and energetic consequences. It may be technically feasible, but in the end it is unsustainable and will be just one more stranded asset.

In 2003, I was one of two elected officials invited to serve on the California Desalination Task Force. The task force was the result of Assembly Bill 2717 (Hertzberg), authorizing the Department of Water Resources to study desalination facilities and “report on potential opportunities and impediments...”

For nearly a year, an unwieldy group of individuals representing a multitude of agencies, industry, and environmental organizations convened around the state to study and prepare a report with their recommendations. As you can imagine, the membership was largely divided into two camps—those with a horse in the race and those without.

The Task Force provided me with the opportunity to learn about this emerging technology but more importantly, to learn about the relationship between water and energy in California. Within a few years my interest in water had blossomed into an obsession with our energy future and peak oil. It is my knowledge of our energy and resource constraints that leads me to reject ocean desalination as the water of our future.

Your browser may not support display of this image.Figure 1: reverse osmosis membranes

The Water/Energy Nexus

Make no mistake, California has a serious water crisis. But it cannot be addressed in isolation of our energy crisis. The problem was summed up perfectly in a 2005 California Energy Commission (CEC) presentation title: “There is no electricity crisis in California the water agencies can’t solve—or make worse.”

Water is energy. According to the CEC, 10% of all electricity production in California is consumed in moving water around the state; another 9% for treating, disposing, pumping, heating, cooling, and pressurizing water.

Energy demand is at its highest July 1 to September 15. The hottest days of the year also coincide with the highest water demand. Maintaining adequate electricity reserves is becoming a challenge in California. According to California’s Energy Action Plan, “Because natural gas is becoming more expensive… reducing consumption of electricity and diversifying electricity generation resources are significant elements of plans to reduce natural gas demand...” There is no more energy intensive water source than ocean desalination.

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Figure 2: Electricity consumption of various California water sources

Power plants require water for cooling. Along the California coast, almost half of our existing electricity generation facilities utilize once-through cooling technology resulting in the intake of 17 billion gallons per day of water. This results in the impingement and entrainment of millions of marine organisms. While dry cooling can reduce the impacts on the marine environment, conversion is expensive, controversial, and limits a desalination proponent’s plans for bootstrapping onto an existing intake/outfall pipe.

The Long Beach Water Department has been operating a demonstration desalination project for many years experimenting with a more responsible under ocean floor seawater intake and discharge. Long Beach has pledged, “not to pursue seawater desalination unless our research efforts determine it can be done cost-effectively, with little or no environmental impact.”

A Mirage in the Desert

The teaser horse in California’s ocean desalination race is a private water company called Poseidon Resources. They and their lobbyists have spent the last 10 years wooing water boards, legislators, and consumers into believing technology could keep California’s growing population satiated.

With the complicity of numerous water agencies, Poseidon has been largely successful. Most Southern Californians have been convinced that ocean desalination is a good thing—a new drought-proof source of water in a state with diminishing resources. Many environmentalists believe that this new water will be a surrogate for water withdrawals from endangered rivers and streams in Northern California. Residents have been told that the projects will be constructed at no cost to the taxpayer and will produce water that is comparably priced to imported water. Unfortunately the claims don’t hold up to scrutiny.

All Politics is Local

The regulatory hurdles to ocean desalination are daunting. The Poseidon adventure in California spans more than a decade beginning with a proposed project in Carlsbad California—a project that is still in the permitting process (despite their website’s claims to the contrary).

By comparison to Huntington Beach, their Carlsbad proposal was an easy sell. San Diego imports almost all of its water from the Metropolitan Water District at a price close to $800/AF. In San Diego, water independence is at least as motivating as energy independence is to most Americans—and about as achievable.

In 2002 Poseidon filed an application with the City of Huntington Beach for a 50 million gallon/day project that would utilize existing intake and outfall pipelines belonging to AES, a global power company with generation and distribution businesses. Surrounding AES in the Southeast area of the city is a hodge-podge of land uses including large gas-oil tanks, a wetland, a wildlife care facility, a sanitation district, a mobile home park, a waste dump-site, and hundreds of cranky homeowners who believe the area is an industrial dumping ground. In other words, Poseidon chose to become part of a long history of distrust between the industrial users, the city, and the residents. While Huntington Beach does not have interest in this new water source, it will be sharing the costs of a new water tank that had already been approved for the area.

As a member of the Orange County Water District, Huntington Beach meets most of its water needs from a well-managed aquifer, with only 25% of its water imported from MWD at roughly $580/AF. In fact, to augment its water supply, OCWD embarked on its own desalination project using effluent from its next door neighbor the Orange County Sanitation District. This partnership helped OCSD avoid construction of another outfall pipe and provided OCWD with a less energy intensive process. Granted, water costs are sure to go higher for all Californians as we struggle with a warming climate and growing population, but energy costs will rise right along water.

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Figure 3: AES 450 MW natural gas power plant, Huntington Beach, CA

In 2006, despite years of public protest, Poseidon won city approval and moved on to wrangling with other regulators and legal challengers. They also continue to seek a public partner so that they will be eligible for subsidies from the Metropolitan Water District.

Like corn ethanol, ocean desalination would not be remotely competitive without huge subsidies. In this case, $250 per acre foot plus publicly constructed and operated pipelines. So much for the pledge of, “no taxpayer money.”

It is anyone’s guess how long MWD will continue these subsidies. But there is an even better captive market than thirsty California. The Southern Nevada Water Authority is salivating at the chance to trade MWD for Colorado River water. Perhaps we are seeing the first signs of another stranded asset: the Colorado River Aqueduct.

Too Costly to Flush

The story of desalinated water has been largely one of unkept promises. Tampa Bay is a typical case. In 1999 Tampa Bay Water received a binding commitment for water at $557/AF. By 2004 costs were updated to $827. By 2008, after a month of operation, it was estimated the wholesale cost to be $1100/AF. Even if this were an inclusive accounting, there are two factors that work in Tampa’s favor: the salinity of the source water and their electricity rate. Both are critical to calculating water costs.

In 2003, Water International estimated that 44% of the cost of desalination was the energy component. But whose energy costs were they using, Florida or California? Or maybe Saudi Arabia? In 2002, Oil and Gas Journal ran a story on desalination facilities in Saudi Arabia. They reported construction costs of 30 facilities at $20 billion, $4 billion for operations and maintenance, and water at $1356/AF. While there are differences between the thermal process used in Saudi Arabia and the reverse osmosis projects in the U.S., the cost of natural gas in Saudi Arabia at that time was 75¢/Mcf—a fraction of what we pay in the U.S.

California’s checkered history with ocean desalination is equally unhelpful. Of those projects that have operated, the following costs have been reported:

  • Gaviota Oil and Gas Processing Plant: $4000/AF
  • Santa Catalina Island (built and operated by Southern California Edison): $2000/AF
  • U.S. Navy, San Nicolas Island: $6000/AF
  • PG&E Diablo Canyon Power Plant: $2000
  • City of Moro Bay: $1,750/AF

The City of Santa Barbara built a plant in the 1990s but never operated it. The Yuma Desalting Plant may be the biggest white elephant in the world. At the time it was built in the late 1980’s, it was the world’s largest reverse osmosis plant capable of desalting 72 million gallons per day. The $245 million project was constructed to comply with the 1944 treaty with Mexico to reduce salinity of Colorado River water from 2900 ppm to 115 ppm. The estimated cost of operations and management was $24 - $29 million per year. I’m told it has never operated except for tests.

This paltry record coupled with a lack of transparency in the industry keeps everyone guessing. It is difficult to challenge the wildly optimistic numbers that are perpetually paraded out at public meetings and in the press. Environmental documents can sometimes fill in a few blanks. The Huntington Beach EIR states that the Poseidon project will require 5476 kWh/AF. If Poseidon were paying a Florida rate of 4.5¢/kWh the cost of electricity alone would be $246/AF. If they paid what the average Californian pays (which includes bond repayment for the 2001 energy crisis)—12¢/kWh—their electricity costs alone would be $657/AF. Poseidon stated at one of the Task Force meetings that it was planning on electricity at 6¢/kWh—a rate that is not available to any industrial user in the state. With those kinds of savings they could perhaps purchase enough lobbying to get special dispensation.

Too much Water

One thing for sure, ocean desalination is not about California’s water crisis. We live in a desert and use too much water. Our water needs can be solved if we follow the lead of agencies like Irvine Ranch Water District and take appropriate measures: allocation based rate structures, smart timers, landscaping codes, and conservation. Ocean desalination is an example of our complete failure to recognize stark realities—water, food, energy, soil, air, and oceans are limited and our population and consumption keeps growing. Once again we are applying a technical fix to an adaptive challenge.

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Figure 4: Typical California landscaping

We are rapidly approaching the time when we will not have enough money to throw at our problems. We may be there now or we may be able to squeak out a few more stranded assets before our future catches up with our present. I’m betting on business as usual.

Debbie Cook is the former Mayor of Huntington Beach, President of Post Carbon Institute, and board member of ASPO-USA.


Since transparency is not a virtue practiced by proponents of ocean desalination, finding data from existing facilities is often a slog through countless documents. After writing this article I discovered the California PUC resolution granting Southern California Edison a 2007 rate increase. SCE is the overall water provider for the island. The following paragraph from the CPUC resolution puts the energy intensity of ocean desalination into perspective:

Producing fresh water from sea water by desalination is a highly energy intensive process and should be utilized only when no other economical water supplies are available. This is illustrated by the fact that for Catalina Island in 2005 desalinated water accounted for only 25% of total water production, but desalination accounted for approximately 70% of total electricity usage.

Also gleaned from the report is that the overall energy intensity (75% local water/25% ocean desal) of Catalina’s water system is approximately 4000 kwh/AF. The CPUC approved a 3 tiered rate, roughly calculated below:

• Tier 1 (up to 2500 gallons): $2000/AF
• Tier 2 (2501-10,000 gallons): $5000/AF
• Tier 3 (over 10,000 gallons): $7200/AF

As a point of comparison, the average Huntington Beach household uses 9000 to 10,500 gallons per month. I have seen many desalination reports quote water rates from Catalina of $2000/AF. It is now clear that using that figure is misleading at best.

What is the current status of nuclear desalination?

I don't know what the status is but I don't see it happening in California. As a friend recently commented about nuclear power: "From too cheap to meter, to too expensive to matter."

In California the proponents often suggest they will use solar energy. If the goal is to use as much energy and resources as possible in producing marginal water, then desal is the way to go--we'll hit the wall at 100 mph instead of 90. The cheapest new source of water is the water we don't use.

More on "too cheap to meter" English was not his first language but the late Petr Beckmann still had an interesting prose style - as those who read his books, blog and newsletter well knew.

I forgot about an early '90's proposal by Metropolitan Water District:
"In the early 90s Metropolitan Water District, So. Cal. Edison, General Atomic and Bechtel were planning a nuclear powered desalination plant, tentatively to be located along side the power generating stations in Huntington Beach."

We are fighting a horribly thought out scheme to put a Desalination Plant here in Marin, against 2/3 of the population wishes. It will unfortunately take legal action to stop this madness, as the local corp whores have already put in on track, with little any of us can do.
With the progressive and active nature of Marin County, this seems like a test case to see if privatization of water can be shoved down the rest of the State.
We have a Water Board meeting coming up Wednesday, and they still have not told us the location, as the outrage is growing.

Are Marinites protesting the fact that a desalination plant may mar the landscape or obstruct views of the beach/ocean, or is it the fact that the plant will be private/for profit? Just curious, as I've noticed a powerful NIMBY tendency among Marinites to oppose practically *any* form of development, even when it might be of benefit to the general public.

Marinites seem especially vehement when opposing anything that might attract or benefit lower income families (assuming there are any left in Marin). Marinites --especially trust-fund "I got mine" Boomers seem to hate the very idea of BART extensions, new multifamily/apartment developments, new "affordable" housing (defined as anything below $2 million in Marin), etc. I mean God forbid Marin's servant class is ever able to afford to actually *live* in Marin, barring inheriting some property from a rich relative. Hate to say it, but Marin seems to be the real-world embodiment of the "limousine liberal" crowd AM talk radio loves to lampoon.

I find it most interesting this tack that HARM is taking, the deliberate use of guilting tactics to drag in hot button social issues implying that Marinites are opposed to the lower classes and thus any social agenda that actually helps the poor must be ignored.

This insidious tactic is a well-worn right wing ploy that we will, unfortunately, see more and more frequently in the coming years, if not months, as we speed towards the brick wall of collapse.

The truth is corporations could give two hoots about you, the environment, the world. They are in it for the profits, the rest of us be damned, including the right and left wing rich people.

It is precisely HARM's sort of argument that will result in nothing significant being done to prepare the planet for the upcoming catastrophe. We will not see a coordinated effort to stop the one thing that is causing the problem (development, growth, etc.) because, while the top hatters scream at the people in steerage and vice versa, the ship goes down.

It is too late. The time to get serious has passed. No amount of social, technological, economical, or ecological tinkering is going to prevent an extremely gruesome and painful crash.

Obama is tied to the status quo and speaks of restarting the growth engine, the very thing that got us in this predicament.

I know the crowd here thinks itself the cool-tempered scientific elite, that their thinking is unmarred by the emotional messiness of the liberal arts, but the truth is they are just as committed to the underlying faulty paradigm as the rest of the world.

The Marinites (lovely name--reminds me of "The Ancient Mariner" in many ways) will suffer as much or more than the hoi polloi in the flats of that desert city L.A., just as much as the S.F. intelligentsia, because there are no walls in an ecology. There are only flows.

The one thing that is certain, everyone gets to participate in the collapse.

Ain't we got fun?

Well done deconstruction and analysis.

If by "Well done deconstruction and analysis" you mean "politically biased ego projection", then we're in 100% agreement.

Maybe you should re-read Cherenkov post again with your feelings/ego in firmly in hand.

Cherenkov does not accuse you of being from the right, he simple states that the type of argument you used is typical of the right's politics of division. He also states that this sort of argument will be used to delay any action and that it is already too late. I don't think that that is an attack on you, just an analysis of your post.

You do use a lot of emotionally-laden words to describe the citizens of Marin. Is this more about your dislike of Marin?

I think allowing localities to self-govern, even if they are selfish and short-sighted, is a good thing. Besides, if you are right about their faults, then they will begin to suffer for them as poor labor they need finds it increasingly difficult to get to Marin.

Is this more about your dislike of Marin?

Yes. Beautiful landscape, but... most of the people living there, not a terribly nice or egalitarian bunch.

I never meant to write a pro-corporate broadside against sensible conservation. I suppose I'm just tired of rich, smug, Bay Arean faux leftists pretending their protests are all about the environment or the children, when it's really all about keeping *their* property values up and diverting ugly, but badly needed infrastructure projects to poorer neighborhoods.

Anyway, sorry for the diversion --Marinite rant off.

when it's really all about keeping *their* property values up

Stop assuming you know what the heck we're thinking over here. Would you like me to interpret all your actions in the worst possible way? You're not helping and you'll just get the targets of your rants angry that their commitments aren't being recognized and honored. Then we'll just shut you out of the conversation and do whatever we want because it will have become clear that there is no way to win with you.

Are you always so ungenerous as you righteously judge other people's actions?


Funny how you assumed I'm a Limbaugh/Kudlow/Cheney-loving right-winger (I'm not) and projected the entire corporatist/neo-con worldview on me, all based on one post about Marin's insufferable smugness. If you disagree with my opinion of Marinites (as you obviously do), that's fine, but please spare me the straw men and your Fox News fantasy projections.

All I was implying was that Marin is largely populated by smug, hypocritical, self-serving and largely wealthy liberals --which it is. And I'm well aware that there are also many wealthy enclaves populated by smug, greedy, and equally self serving Republicans (as others have already pointed out). I guess the only real difference is, the rich right-wing snobs usually don't pretend to be advocating "for the little people" while simultaneously promoting economic policies that screw them, the way that your typical CA limousine lib does. Of course, the right-wing rich prefer to use other forms of misdirection --such as religion, gays (culture war wedge issues) and "free trade" ideology... but that's a topic for another discussion.

Are Marinites "opposed to the lower classes" (or at least the neighboring poor)? Well, based on their opposition to anything that might lead to affordable housing and public transportation anywhere *near* their neighborhoods, not to mention their "liberal" ;-) use of and political support for illegal labor vs. American labor, frankly YES. Does any of this change the inevitability of P.O. or the need for the world to find viable energy alternatives, reduce our populations, etc. while we still can? No. And what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China? Not much.

I would think that even those trust funds you talk about are starting to show rather significant deterioration. Benefiting lower income families may start to show some traction, even in Marin.

(speaking as a Marinite) The people I know working against the desal plant think it is a waste of money and resources and would rather the county conserve instead. Also, some towns (Mill Valley, specifically) have a very high leakage rate in their fresh water pipe system because the pipes are over a century old. Why not put the money into maintenance where it's needed (hint: not as sexy for the planners). Last, building a desal plant works against the carbon reduction goals the county has supposedly adopted since desal plants are so energy-intensive.

Everyone here is still thinking BAU...perhaps the financial crisis will stop some of this madness (I suspect it may).

Well spoken--
Aside from the corp whores into privatization of the water supply, you have the engineer types on the board who just don't see conservation and local rain capture as a sexy engineering solution, when one can build a big engineering project costing hundreds of millions of dollars, with all kinds of cool machines and tearing up of the earth involved.
Conservation and localization is just not that sexy.

Look, if the primary reason Marinities don't want the desalination plant is because there are far better, cheaper and more eco-friendly alternatives, then more power to them. On the other hand, I've noticed that Marinites have, as a group, frequently been opposed to *any* form of development or change whatsoever, even when (or is it "especially when"?) it might be beneficial to the general public, hoi polloi, etc.

Opposing a new desalination plant for sound economic and ecological reasons is perfectly understandable. I can even understand (if not relate) if some long-time Marinites are afraid it might lower the value of their hyper-expensive real estate, or because it might obstruct the lovely view from their biodynamic pot/veggie gardens. Lots of people get involved in politics for selfish reasons --nothing unique or the least bit immoral about it. Nonetheless... pretending you're protesting to "protect the environment" or "it's for the children", etc. when all you want is for the darned thing to be relocated to a poorer neighborhood --say Vallejo-- just smacks of smug hypocrisy to me.

NIMBY is not a term that was necessarily coined to describe Marinites. But it does suit them rather well, IMHO. And once again --for the record-- I'm well aware that right-wing rich people suck too.


what you don't realize is that the commitment to low development is exactly what has preserved the Marin Headlands and retained the high degree of open space in the county -- one of the highest rates in the country. The people who lived before me here saw the beauty of the land and worked their butts off to preserve it. This much open space didn't come without work, and I for one truly respect and honor the people who put in the thousands of hours needed to fend off the growth paradigm. Developers salivate over the idea of putting homes high on the beautiful hills overlooking San Francisco, and that was stopped. (Now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.)

So, yes, further development of all sorts is seriously opposed here. Personally, I wish the rest of the country were to do the same. I would much rather have the commitment to the environment that is here, even with the occasional hypocrisies. This is one little corner of the world where the developers haven't been able to do whatever they wanted.

Isn't that the kind of thinking most people on this site wish were more common? You are impugning the motivations of the people who live here and you don't have the whole story. Please stop.

Marin Open Space

So, yes, further development of all sorts is seriously opposed here. Personally, I wish the rest of the country were to do the same. I would much rather have the commitment to the environment that is here, even with the occasional hypocrisies. This is one little corner of the world where the developers haven't been able to do whatever they wanted.

I see your point here, and even sympathize to a some extent. Nonetheless, I have to question, would Marinites still be protesting if the same desalination plant proposed to be in, say, Vallejo? Or Richmond? Frankly, I doubt it.

Another problem I have with ideologically reflexive opposition to *all* forms of development is, where exactly are all the additional ~300,000 people who are added to the state's population each year supposed to live? Cardboard boxes on the bad side of town, I suppose? Rigidly opposing development while failing to support controls on immigration and population growth just pushes up the local cost of living and relocates the problem to other locations, IMO.

We see the same thing here in Toronto. 20 or thirty people build "country estates" on the outskirts of the city, then when normal development moves out to their area, they scream "ecologically sensitive" and lobby to have their gravel hill declared a greenbelt because its the native habitat of the Canadian thistle or something. They often do succeed in forcing development away from the northern outskirts, a lot of non-productive glacial morain gravel surfaces much closer to city centre, out to the northwest where there used to be really productive high-fertility farmland. And to get the development stopped they have to fight for revisions to the long-term official plan, so its not like they didn't know it was due for development when they built. The trick appears to be to buy land which is relatively cheap because of some future development plans, then fight through the political system to get he future development stopped, which greatly increases their property values. But you'll never hear them complain about that farmlnd development, no, if they stopped that the development might come back to their suburb. It's just more of the "I got mine, so you shove off" attitude.

Not like there's any political corruption involved, the politicians are just doing what they need to to get re-elected. What's needed is to get back to some honesty and common sense and work ethic in journalism, to properly present these things, not just reprint the protester's slogan sheets handouts.

where exactly are all the additional ~300,000 people who are added to the state's population each year supposed to live?

Good question. Do we allow growth until every beautiful space is paved over or otherwise developed? Or do we make a stand somewhere and hold the line?

You have your point of view, which is valid, and we have ours, which is also valid. We're drawing the line where we want to draw it and you would draw the line elsewhere. Stop making us wrong for where we draw the line, please. Your opinion is not "the only true and correct" opinion.

I never said opposing development is *always* wrong. Where I do have a problem is when it takes the NIMBY "I got mine, so you shove off" (;-) @lengould) form I've often observed in the Bay Area, and Marin in particular. I also believe --just my opinion-- that where the lines are drawn *does* matter.

If we're talking about protecting national/state parks or other areas that have truly unique or special flora/fauna/terrain (e.g., Yosemite, Redwoods, Joshua Tree, Point Reyes, etc.) then you have my full support in halting private sector development. Thing is, I have a hard time believing that no portion of Marin can be developed further (within sensible limits) without irreparably destroying the landscape, when development evidently has not destroyed all the other areas surrounding Marin. Again, if this plant were proposed for, say Richmond, Oakland or Vallejo, would you still oppose it?

RE: the desalination plant, assuming the "right" combination of technologies and design is used (in conjunction with better conservation and water recycling), then why is it not reasonable to expect that the plant's carbon/energy footprint can be minimized to acceptable levels? I would much prefer to see CA's population reduced to levels that can be sustained with our current fresh water supply. But until the political will exists to make that happen (ha!), we still need viable alternatives to sucking our lakes and rivers dry.

Is this technological Cornucopianism or pragmatic realism on my part? Guess it all depends on your POV.

where exactly are all the additional ~300,000 people who are added to the state's population each year supposed to live?

This begs the question:  when California has such huge problems with water shortages, critical habitats and such, WHY are ~300,000 people being added to the population every year?  Americans are leaving California; the growth is all from immigration.

Seems it's much less costly to stop immigration (and deport the illegals) than to try to meet their needs for food, water, housing, transport, medical care, education ($7 billion/year if you count "anchor babies" with non-citizen children), etc.  Some counties are cutting services to non-citizens already, because the situation is unsustainable.  Slashing the state's population by sending immigrants home will cost the rich folks a lot more for landscaping, but it will give everything else a reprieve.

Come now HARM, almost all of Marin has been protected, and is in the hands of either the community or the Federal Government. Marin County has half the population of Huntington Beach (someplace I have also lived, but we won't go there now), and is the richest county in the state because of its location and beauty.
I do have sympathy for your distaste for the elite in Tiburon, or Mill Valley where I live, as the Soccer Mom in SUV with the husband working in the City making 1.5 million a year, and paying the 10,000 a month mortgage, and cluelessly drifting through life.
But these people are living here because people before them fought for protecting the environment and had the insight to do this early in the game.
But I can feel your rage, I just think you need a bit more information.
This really is an issue of another bunch of elite scheming for a payoff, when simple conservation and lifestyle modification will work.

I don't see it as a left/right thing. They're self-selecting communities. Rich Republicans who settle in these kinds of areas, as opposed to say Las Vegas, want the same thing as rich liberals in Marin: open space, historical preservation, low density, and keep the riff-raff out. The Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California is one such place, and it's overwhelmingly Republican.

robert wilson -

The answer sort of depends on what country you're talking about. As I recall, Japan has several nuclear power plants that use waste heat to operate a multi-effect desalination evaporator. Apart from a few other countries doing the same, I don't think there is currently too much activity in this area in terms of actual proposed projects.

In the US, schemes for nuclear powered desalination plants have been on the drawing boards since the late 1950s, but nothing has ever come of them. Given the current economic climate and regulatory climate, I think nuclear-powered desalination in the US is going to remain dead for quite some time to come.

Of course, desalination should be a last resort after all reasonable water conservation efforts have been implemented. But if one is going to do desalination, a nuclear power plant using waste heat could be one of the more efficient ways to go. Why throw away all that waste heat when it could be used to produce something useful?

Desalination might also be a good use for wind and solar power for the simple reason that, unlike electricity, large quantities of desalinated water can be stored relatively easily and cheaply, thus decoupling short-term supply and demand during prolong periods when it is cloudy or when the wind isn't blowing very hard.

Not even needed they have the answer right in front of them there in California for power both for desal and most if not all of their power for the state as a whole

Wave Power..always there and ready for good baseline power right where you need it without having to ship it up or down the grid in the state and also desal water where you need it and not waste power pushing it all over the state either.

Even green power for all the tree huggers

Can't answer that one but here is a wind powered desal plant in Kwinana, Australia.
What's wrong with wind and solar power for desal?

"We are rapidly approaching the time when we will not have enough money to throw at our problems. "

I think that sounds like the present. TimezUp.

So, now we will see how Nature takes care of the problem. It seems to me the path of least resistance will be migration of much of the population.

But where will the population migrate too - and will they run into the former Detroiters, Atlantans, etc who will also be out wandering the desert (just joking, sort of)?

I was just learnin' yesterday about how Seattle and the Pacific Northwest is the New Land of Plenty of the future... Hopefully everyone migrates there and is safe.

Grapes of Wrath all over again.

How much water do we actually need?

When I see manicured road borders and golf greens in the desert it simply says to me that water costs to the end consumer are way way too cheap (like Matt Simmons 'cup of Gas').

If/when water is charged at a much higher rate because either it actually IS running out/rare locally or production costs are higher then we will see demand drop accordingly and usage will be restricted to those activities that make sense -like drinking the stuff...


Nick, that sounds like a typical economist's POV.

What happened when oil and other commodities' production costs went higher and we saw "demand drop accordingly and usage restricted"???

The economy died.

Now, how much arid farmland can California sustain before it's economy completely collapses?

How much in terms of "restrictions to activities that make sense" before most cities and industries cannot function ?

A lot of people and industry will have to leave the Desert South West. Just don't take the same highways as the people leaving Arizona or Nevada... maybe each state should take turns moving to Seattle and the Pacific NorthWest.

He is right: most water in the US is wasted. When I lived in Tucson I drank far less water than my apartment complex dumped onto the line of palm trees out the window.

Water does not power the economy in the same way oil/energy does.
Yes, cities like Phoenix are stupid and shortsighted. But there are places where people can migrate where there is ample water. We can't all migrate to Saudi Arabia when the oil runs out. Your comparison is inaccurate.

Its only 'a typical economists POV' in that it considers the supply / demand equilibrium affecting end uses and many of these wasteful uses can hardly be called necessary...

We will have to become more efficient in our usage of all things -I'm afraid that lesson has yet to really sink into the psyche of many Americans/Advanced Nations who still believe in the boundless bounty of Mother Nature.


How much water do we actually need?

When I see manicured road borders and golf greens in the desert it simply says to me that water costs to the end consumer are way way too cheap (like Matt Simmons 'cup of Gas').

If/when water is charged at a much higher rate because either it actually IS running out/rare locally or production costs are higher then we will see demand drop accordingly and usage will be restricted to those activities that make sense -like drinking the stuff...

Right now we have an official policy of infinite legal immigration and official tolerance of infinite illegal immigration. California takes the biggest hit of this policy. The amount of water California will need is an infinite amount of water.

Since this article talks about the problems involved with getting enough fresh water for California's "growing population" and it is startling that it implicitly condones an infinite growing population.

Question for those who are more expert than me. How does the energy use of a desalination plant compare with pumping water 100 feet uphill? It seems to me that the primary energy of desal is forcing the water thru the filter, and it cant be that much more than forcing water uphill.
If the alternative to desal is to pump water 100s of miles over mountains; the energy footprint of the plants dont look so bad. Of course before building either my prefereance would be to get rid of lawns and golf courses.

DavidHu -

The pressure needed to operate a reverse osmosis unit is directly dependent upon the salinity of the water. Brackish water might require only 200 to 300 psi, whereas full-strength sea water would require pressures in the 1,000 psi range. A pressure of 1,000 psi would be equivalent to raising the water to a height of almost 2,300 ft.

Keep in mind that after you've desalinated the water, you very likely still might have to subsequently pump it uphill to deliver it to its intended point of use. So, desalinating sea water does indeed get energy-intensive. But as you pointed out, that energy consumption must be compared against that of transporting water great distances. It all gets down to a situation-specific economic analysis.

But as the above-stated operating pressures indicate, from a strictly energy consumption standpoint it is far preferable to desalinate brackish water than actual sea water.

As the chart indicates, sewage effluent requires 1500 kWh/AF (an AF is roughly 326,000 gallons) and seawater requires 5400 kWh/AF. It is the largest single component in the cost of the water--especially in a high electricity rate state like California. Roughly 50% of the water we consume in Southern California goes to landscaping. The average household in HB uses 2.5 AF per year. There is much low hanging fruit (my own yard included) before we resort to ocean desal.

"How does the energy use of a desalination plant compare with pumping water 100 feet uphill?"

That was answered in the article. Pumping water 100 feet uphill uses as much energy as pumping it from 100 feet underground.

Reverse osmosis is "only" pumping water through a filter, but keep in mind that the less porous the filter gets, the more energy it needs to get through. Reverse osmosis filters' pores are so small that dissolved ions don't get through. Single ions are quite small...

A shallow well, less than a few hundred feet, can use a surface mounted motor and a long shaft with intermittent bearings down to the pump. These are expensive to maintain, but the motor efficiency is high, like 90% or more.

The trend has been to use submersible pump and motor sets located down hole. They tend to be much less efficient.

Pumping water over long distances does not have to use a lot of energy.

Here is how the Romans did it:

This aqueduct in the south of France carries 5 million gallons (20,000 cu m) of water a day 31 mi (50 km) with a head, or elevation change, of 56 ft (17 m) at a slope of 1:3000. The Pont (Fr. for bridge) itself is 49 m or 160 ft above the river).

Interestingly, the stones were close fitted and no cement/mortar was used. It was built in the First Century CE.

I walked across it in awe.

US uses 80 trillion gallons of fresh water per year for industrial( much to energy production),
10 trillion gallons per year residential(90 gal per day per US capita--in Europe it is 43 gallons per day) and 32 trillion gallons for agriculture.
The total is 122 trillion gallons which is 376 million acre feet.
Assuming all industrial and residential water--90 trillion gallons--is pumped at an average of 1000 kwh per acre feet (and assume all ag water flows by gravity) you get 278 Twh or 7% of all US electricity goes to pumping fresh water about.

Europe also has problems with fresh water.

majorian -

I would be cautious in using those figures for industrial water usage. A large portion of industrial water usage is for once-through cooling purposes. In once through cooling the water is not really consumed but rather just 'borrowed' and returned to the stream or river from whence it came (albeit at a higher temperature).

I doubt whether such aggregated water usage statistics bother to make that important distinction. Now in the case of domestic water usage, that fraction that goes for drinking water, washing, and the flushing of toilets can be considered to be 'consumed', in the sense that what results is no longer usable water but rather wastewater.

I'm also curious as to how you arrived at your assumption that all industrial and residential water requires an average amount of unit pumping energy of 1,000 kwh/acre-ft. (?)

The reason I ask is that one acre-ft of water weighs 2.72 million lbs. As a kwh is equivalent to 2.65 million ft-lbs, your assumption would imply that, on average, industrial and domestic water has to be pumped against a head of almost 1,000 ft. I find that to be WAY off as an average figure, possibly by an entire order of magnitude.

This is the danger in using aggregated data and assumptions that are little more than guesses. (I used to make a living doing that sort of thing and like to think I have developed a sense for where some of the pitfalls are.)

It seemed high when I wrote it.
From the chart in the article which gives 950 kwh per acre feet for California groundwater.

There's the pump/grid efficiencies which are maybe 50%? on average: 1000-->500
500 feet=220 psi, most street mains are 50 psi(116 feet), then there's transit to the municipality and maybe a 200 foot(87 psi) well?

Maybe it is a bit lower than 1 Mwh, still I think that it isn't all that misleading.

It does show considerable energy is used in transporting fresh water.

Raising the temperature of water increases the evaporation especially in an area of very low dew points. There is a certain percentage of cooling water water which is no longer available for other uses. If only there were some cheap way to condense water straight out of the atmosphere the way air compressor systems do.

Evaporation is about 3% or so IIRC. Just compare water withdrawls to water consumption for the thermal power generation sector.

Not to worry Nestles Water is on top of it;
(click on california)

A blog dealing with water economics --- much CA stuff

What is needed here is new technology.
Kill two bird with one stone: Take advantage of vast stores of offshore methane hydrates.
It is a bit far off, but the proof-of-concept has been established--TRL4 (see

I live about 200 miles north of SF. There have been several proposals during the last 50 years to dam: The Eel River (2 dams - I had the Corps of Engineers report on this at one time), to dam Long Valley where the town Laytonville is located (in the 60's the Corps went around to area homeowners who would be flooded out but the project never came to fruition) and Round Valley where the town of Covelo is located. There are also current concerns in Laytonville that some outside company will come in and buy up water rights in the valley and then export the water. The cities south of this area (Willits, Ukiah and the Santa Rosa area) are all "short" of water. If expansion of the cities mentioned above continues, my gut feeling is that at least one of these projects will be undertaken.


Good. Ultimately, I think dense cities are part of the answer. If that means losing a town, so be it.


Well, unfortunately, from your perspective, these cities are suburbia writ large. They have no true "high density" areas comparable to major cities. They have a sort of an urban core of stores along a main drag with the actual populations spread out over miles and miles of single family houses.

Although arguments can be made made for both high density and extremely low density living, my personal belief is that high density cities will become death taps. YMMV.


Not that Willits, Ukiah, or Santa Rosa are "dense." Willits is more of a "town" anyway.

There's talk of putting one of these desal plants in Moss Landing, I have to wonder, Why? Moss Landing is fairly damp and hardly anyone lives there.

And I can bet the local golf course up the road here (which has already pissed us off here by replacing a great cattail-filled ditch with junipers) won't have any water rationing.

Howdy Fleam,

(Welcome, by the way. Gilroy of all places!)

Why Moss Landing?? Because there is a large power plant (as you know) right there (CA's largest IIRC).

Desal = lots of energy needed

Also because the pipeline infrastructure to and from the ocean to is already in place at the power plant. And the surrounding areas need water. Monterey Peninsula (Cal-Am Water) is already criminal and has been for years due to ecocide of the Carmel River watershed due to excess pumping. There is no alternative at this point or on the way...

The surrounding Salinas Valley is experiencing saltwater intrusion into groundwater as a result of excess pumping from wells there. Monterey County = $5 billion/year in agriculture

Todd, above, made me realize that when it's people vs. nature, guess who always suffers?? The Eel river ecosystem has been decimated partly from a tunnel drilled over to the Russian River which diverts water from the Eel to serve areas South via the Russian.

We've got great golf courses though.

Here is the "Introduction" paragraph to the Seawater Greenhouse, a technology that seems ideally suited to the Salinas Valley (combined, if necessary, with the AVE.)

"The Seawater Greenhouse is a unique concept which combines natural processes, simple construction techniques and mathematical computer modelling to provide a low-cost solution to one of the world's greatest needs – fresh water. The Seawater Greenhouse is a new development that offers sustainable solution to the problem of providing water for agriculture in arid, coastal regions.

The process uses seawater to cool and humidify the air that ventilates the greenhouse and sunlight to distil fresh water from seawater. This enables the year round cultivation of high value crops that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to grow in hot, arid regions.

Population growth is threatening the availability of fresh water in many regions of the world. With agriculture accounting for approximately 70% of all water used, the water crisis is closely linked to food production and economic development. Conventional agriculture is very inefficient in its use of water with several hundred litres needed to produce just one kilogram of produce. Although seawater is abundant, conventional desalination consumes substantial energy, usually derived from fossil fuels. There is a need for affordable and sustainable means of producing food and water, without reliance on energy reserves.

Self-sufficiency in water production combined with low internal irrigation requirements mean that The Seawater Greenhouse offers significant water savings by reducing agricultural demands on mains and ground water. The Seawater Greenhouse solution has the potential to make a positive impact on the impending global water crisis. It may also become the lowest cost method of desalination and perhaps the only one that is truly sustainable.

Today, the Seawater Greenhouse is ready for implementation in any arid region where a sustainable approach to agriculture and water production is needed."

Question: Which came first--the Oil Company or the Automobile?
Question: Which came first--the Nuclear Electricity Plant or the Desalination Plant?

The one bright spot about desal, is the one Joule mentioned, the fact that such plants could be run on discontinuous renewal power. If the day ever arrives, when we have built lots of time varying renewable power supplies, then there will be periods of excess power to cheap to meter, as well as a need for industrial customers who can be cut off in times of shortage. Until then, it is a bad idea.

Does anyone have any idea if...

Rather than convert wind to electricity, would there be a greater gain by simply using wind to pump water through filters directly?? Just like windmills in the old days...

A very comprehensive article and very clearly a reason to be very concerned about the pressure coming from private corporations seeking to build desalination plants along the coast of California.

I remember that natgas power plant in HB, in that photo, the Pacific Ocean is just off the lower right corner of the photo. The road running along there is the Pacific Coast Highway. The plant's a hulking green monster (or pair of monsters) I used to call the "Fun Factory" after an arcade parlor where I grew up.

Used to be some nice bird habitat along there, which gradually got covered with houses and the wetlands now resemble one of those ponds in a golf course.

I last passed through HB about 6 months ago, everyone in OC is so FRANTIC. The last stand of Materialism. I looked for a friend there who'd probably have let me camp in his backyard in a tent, especially since I'd have paid him a bit of money for the privilage. But he's left after about 40 years of living in HB, to Lake Elsinore, which we all know is death personified. R.I.P. Greg.

HB looks like a theme park now, it used to be really cool. Dead a lot of the time downtown, but cool. Now I guess it will become a dead theme park?

In 1974, California's population was 21 million (9.9% of the nations total population). As of 2008, it was nearly 37 million (12% of the nation's total population). So California's environmental problem is fundamentally a human overpopulation problem.

And you're not going to solve the problem of overpopulation in relation to resources by conservation and efficiency alone.

Californians have chosen to invest in expensive carbon dioxide polluting natural gas electricity instead of cheap nuclear electricity and now actually imports some nuclear electricity from Arizona . The Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, by the way, uses waste water from urban sewage to cool its huge nuclear power facility.

There are several emerging technologies that can use waste heat from nuclear power plants for desalination. So instead of 'wasting' two thirds of our energy from nuclear power plants, we could utilize it to make fresh water.

California needs to substantially increase its nuclear power capacity for electricity and carbon neutral synfuel production over the next 20 or 30 years and use the waste heat from these reactors to produce fresh water in combination with water conservation and recycling.

But unless we stop population growth in California then we really have no choice but to seek out technological solutions to help mitigate the water crisis in California.

Marcel F. Williams

You nailed it, Marcel.

"Make no mistake, California has a serious water population crisis."

I haven't seem this mentioned: isn't nuclear power a "baseload" power source? (that is, runs 24/7 at the same output and can't surge to meet demand peaks, like natural gas is able to do.)

With extra nuclear power generation capacity, it seems like the unneeded power during the nights could be put to use doing something useful, like desalination.

I'm in full agreement with newpapyrus that the nuclear option needs to be given a closer look, although in California chances seem dim unless a severe crisis starts to take shape. Here in Texas, chances are good for the first new reactors in the United States. See

As far as I know, the new South Texas reactors aren't slated for desalination since Houston doesn't have a serious water supply issue. Dallas-Fort Worth does have a looming water issue.

Interestingly, the Red River, between Oklahoma and Texas, and Lake Texhoma on the river are saline and useless for water supply and desalination has been considered.

Finally, while North Texas faces water supply issues, southeast Oklahoma is drowning in water but they won't let Texas have a single drop.

When I lived in Santa Barbara they said the desalinization plant was in case of drought emergency. Whether the project was initially sold that way, I couldn't tell you. So like most government projects they lowball the price when it is pitched and then bill you the true cost of 2x-3x when it is done.

The main problem is that there are more water "rights" than liquid water. California uses 80% of its improved water for agriculture and half of the rest for lawns. When they run out of water, they just have to quit growing government subsidized cotton in the desert.

As I look at the middling numbers in this post, I can't quite figure out what all the fuss is about. Unless we farm irrigated land, few of us buy water by the acre-foot, a gargantuan unit that almost seems chosen to obfuscate the numbers beyond all understanding.

You tell us "If Poseidon were paying a Florida rate of 4.5¢/kWh the cost of electricity alone would be $246/AF." Oh, woe unto us, horror of horrors.

But wait a minute. $246 divided by 325851 gallons is 0.075 cents per gallon. That seems to descend so far below the zone of utter triviality that binoculars might not suffice to spot it. Now, granted, maybe it's not an OK price for growing rice in the desert (do they do that only in California?), but I certainly think I'd rather pay 0.075 cents per gallon than forgo drinking, cooking, bathing and sanitation. Seems like a no-brainer.

To be fair and use the middling totaled costs in the $2000 range, that would be around 0.6 cents per gallon. Now maybe that's not an OK price for watering a golf course in the desert, but again I think I'd still rather pay 0.6 cents per gallon than forgo drinking, cooking, and bathing and sanitation. I also think I'd rather pay 0.6 cents per gallon than spend thousands of dollars, and lose tens of thousands more in income and unknown tens of thousands in capital, because some grandstanding Federal judge cut off the water supply. (By the time I throw in all the tricky water utility charges, sewer rents, and so on, 0.6 cents might not even be an enormous bump anyhow.)

Generally I'd expect a municipal desal plant to be providing water for urban type uses, so I don't think I'm being terribly unfair. (Though if a few lawns went brown, so what?) Is the big fuss, then, really about some kind of weird quasi-religious aesthetic that uses the Web - that collection of some of the highest technology existing - to pan anything that seems technological, in favor of, perhaps, some unreliable buggy-whip solution that strikes someone, for bizarre and inscrutable reasons, as somehow more aesthetically pleasing?

Anyway, if the point is that we can't afford desal water for core domestic uses, it seems risible at these numbers or even numbers an order of magnitude higher, and perhaps still problematic even at numbers two orders of magnitude higher. What then is the point?

>But wait a minute. $246 divided by 325851 gallons is 0.075 cents per gallon.

I buy 3000 gallons a month which is below Tucson average. That would make my water bill $225/month instead of the current $50.

They grow rice in the swamps near Sacramento. To the best of my knowledge they don't grow rice in the desert. But they do grow thirsty crops like cotton. Phoenix used to be surrounded by cotton fields, but that's all gone now.

Nope - it's 225 cents

These days they can desalinate water for a total cost around $2/Kgal. They can bill me. The projects cited from the 1990s California are so last century and they are around $6/Kgal.

Consider the cost of a monthly water bill. Normal range is $5-10/100 cubic feet, or $0.0066/gal to $0.0134/gal. This produces a monthly water bill of $40-80, from a fresh water source (river, groundwater, reservoir) that is essentially free. A desalination plant producing water at 0.6 cents/gal will essentially double everybody's water bill. That will rile some people up.

As the other replies to your comment have pointed out, throwing out a number without any context isn't very helpful. What would your water bill actually be? That is the question.

Aside from that, however, I think the point of the article was that desalination is a huge energy consumer, and not only that but its energy requirements are probably understated. Where is that energy going to come from? Should the government permit or even subsidize desalination for the sake of golf courses or growing rice in the desert? The issues being discussed are much larger than household water use.

It depends. I'm sure you realize that "your mileage may vary."
Compare rates of US cities at
To put that chart into context, the 2004 rate in Boston is $6.90/100 cf (average for 120 cf; see
This translates to a monthly bill of $69.08. This comes from a very nice freshwater supply that requires minimal treatment. The expense goes to maintaining the system and to treat the sewage.
If that water came a desalination plant, the cost of desalination would be added. at 0.6 cent/gal ($4.51/100 cf), the total cost is then $11.41/100 cu, and the monthly bill goes up proportionally, to $114.10, assuming the total consumption doesn't change.

"Where is that energy going to come from?"

At numbers well under one cent a gallon for the water, who cares? By that, I mean that if desal water is so expensive due to energy cost that you can't afford to use it for domestic household use and even moderate industrial uses, then you've got an energy problem so far outside the box that you probably haven't got a city there in the first place, for lack of food, transport, and other things that are vastly more expensive in energy. So how does desal water ever get to be the choke-point unless you have diabolical politicians forcing quasi-religious agendas onto people?

"Should the government permit or even subsidize desalination for the sake of golf courses or growing rice in the desert?"

That's a different question, especially with respect to subsidization. Without subsidy, uses like that would fall away as the price rises, even at prices still trivial with respect to domestic and other really important uses. And they'd go away without having to create a whole new expensive bureaucracy replete with legions of water police poking their obnoxious noses into everyone's daily business. What's not to like about that? So again, aside from quasi-religious issues, I still don't quite see what the huge problem could be.


I think the question is literally where the energy is going to come from. We are now or will soon be living in a world of declining energy availability. You have been following this website for how long?

As I have been saying for the last five years: Peak oil is not an energy crisis, it's a liquid fuel crisis!

If there's a single thing that should have entered everyones heads from reading the Hirsch report and all Hirsch's presentations or after having talked to him, it's that single idea.

Energy is abundant and as cheap as ever as long as you use your heads. Liquid fuel is a completely different matter.

Lots of others also agree with your statement; "Peak oil is not an energy crisis, it's a liquid fuel crisis!"

Unfortunately others have the idea that oil is SO important that nothing else can function without oil, in spite of the history of the industrial revolution prior to 1869.

A common statement is; oil availability will decline, therefore energy will decline, therefore GDP will decline therefore the economy will collapse because it MUST have economic growth to function. Look at the proof, the US economy contracted 1.5% last month, ignore history, that oil availability has increased, declines in GDP have occurred >10 times in the last 100 years.

We will know when we reach a liquid fuels crisis when gasoline rationing is introduced or gasoline taxes are raised to $4 a gallon or car use is rationed to odd-even license plates on alternate days or all of the above.

Lots of others also agree with your statement; "Peak oil is not an energy crisis, it's a liquid fuel crisis!"

Unfortunately others have the idea that oil is SO important that nothing else can function without oil, in spite of the history of the industrial revolution prior to 1869.

A common statement is; oil availability will decline, therefore energy will decline, therefore GDP will decline therefore the economy will collapse because it MUST have economic growth to function. Look at the proof, the US economy contracted 1.5% last month, ignore history, that oil availability has increased, declines in GDP have occurred >10 times in the last 100 years.

We will know when we reach a liquid fuels crisis when gasoline rationing is introduced or gasoline taxes are raised to $4 a gallon or car use is rationed to odd-even license plates on alternate days or all of the above.

I live in South Florida near the beach betweem Miami and Ft. Lauderdale and am currently under a drought warning and not allowed to wash sidewalks water plants wash cars etc... However during three quarters of the year I have to deal with flash floods. While rain catchment may not work in more arid areas such as southern California. We on the other hand already have free natural solar powered desalinization in the form of rain for most of the year. I'm sure that a lot more could be done with better administration of this already existing resource. Unfortunately most of this water now runs off our roofs, paved streets and parking lots to pick up all the toxic chemicals and debris clogs our sewers and flows out onto our Local coral reefs and adds to the already considerable stress that they are under.

How much and what kind of waste is left over from desal, and what is done with it?

Highly saline water, which is usually pumped back to the ocean, from what I understand.

The problems related to brine outflow seem to be enough that in Isreal they mix the brine with outflow water from a powerplant --
however these guys seem to think that if you diffuse the salt then it isn't a problem (i suspect it is a matter of scale, as the first link shows that there can be significant areas with >10% increase in salinity, but these guys show <1% at the sea floor)

The modeling for a desal plant here in Queensland would also support the idea that the brine outflow is not a problem, if properly managed- - "Small mixing zone of approximately 120m x 225m centred on the outlet to disperse brine salinity to within 2 ppt above background level (average around 35.5 ppt). The most sensitive organisms only start to show signs of stress above 38 ppt, with most organisms able to tolerate well over 40 ppt, therefore no impacts are expected."

Nice article!

I wonder if these ever get going, how much maintenance will be required? How often will the reverse osmosis membranes need to be changed?

If we develop problems with imports, it seems like these could be white elephants, even apart from their high operating costs, and the fact that we barely have enough electricity for California, apart from this issue.

Hopefully Tampa Bay will be the exception rather than the rule when it comes to RO membranes clogging, etc. That was certainly the project from hell with contractor turnover and finally the public water agency having to take over the project. Perhaps someone will see this post and give us an update. I understand that RO is not the kind of process you want to start/stop--needs to run continuously.

Would also be interesting to track down the various components required for the membranes and any potential for resource challenges. Perhaps energy is not the weakest link.

Great article. Recycling water at the city and home level seems to be the most realistic and energy efficient solution. But don’t give up on technology. There is a connection between water and energy no one has mentioned so far – the enormous amount of energy inside moving water. I just returned from the RETECH 2009 convention in Las Vegas which covered the latest in renewable power technology. Both solar and wind power RO systems have been tested with limited and expensive results. The idea though, using renewables to replace fossil fuel electric generation, is an interesting one. The problem is clear: Low energy dense renewables are far more expensive than fossil fuels, at this time. That is except one. Hydropower is the world’s cheapest form of energy, cheaper than coal, oil or natural gas. The newest generation of hydropower technology, hydrokinetics, replaces the dam and reservoir with wind turbine like devices set inside the river. Unlike hydropower turbines, which operate at hundreds of RPM, these turbines operate at very low speeds and have been well vetted by several government and private studies concerning their impact on marine life. One of these new hydrokinetic companies has developed a self-contained river powered watermaker which combines a generator and RO unit. This unit is placed in arrays across a river taking polluted river water, cleaning it and pumping it ashore. The units can also be used to power a shoreside RO facility. They claim a similar $/kWh as hydrodams. We’ll have to see whether this will turn out to be another solution along with an in-depth recycling program.

I live on The Earths Moon.

We used to import water but now make it by electric-plasma decomposition of the Lunar Regolith. It's an Energy intensive operation but since the early days we have come to use water sparingly -there is hardly any 'lost'. Human excreta and fluids are recycled through the recirculating Aquaponics system, even the water content of our exhailed breath is scrubbed out and re-used.

The lesson is clear: the more expensive and valued something is to us the more we try and conserve it, conversely the cheaper something becomes the more wasteful our uses of it... This lesson was learnt almost too late for humanity and it was touch and go for a number of decades while we 'adjusted' to this new reality...


Do y'all pee into your drinking water on the Moon? It's a popular activity here on Earth ...

They probably wear Still suits like the ones on Arakis so they actually extract drinking water from their pee ;-)

Besides a better reuse/recycle of water uses, why doesn't use waste heat from thermal power plants (both nuclear or fossil fuels ones) with thermal desalination processes, instead electricity intensive RO? Nuclear, in particular, has the potential of very low marginal cost in the thermal energy produced

The cooling system of a thermal steam power plant removes low grade heat. Thus the low pressure wet steam from the turbine is at less than atmospheric pressure and the temp is below the boiling point of salt water. To have a large scale operation use this energy, the temp of the steam would have to be higher, which lowers power plant efficiency, or the salt water put in a vacuum so it boils below the temp of this steam, which requires energy input. Salt water may boil at 220 F while the wet low pressure steam from the turbine is at 190 F.

A difficult proposition any way you look at it.

mbnewtrain -

You are correct about the temperature of low pressure turbine being at only 190 F.

However, if I understand correctly, the type of desalination system that would be used in employing the waste heat from a nuclear power plant would be a multi-stage flash evaporator operated at something less than atmospheric pressure. As such, the water would flash into vapor at a considerably lower temperature than the boiling point of water at atmospheric pressure.

Of course means have to be provided maintain the slight vacuum in the evaporator stages. This can be done in several ways, all of which require an external energy source. So, it would appear that such a desalination system would not operate on 100% waste heat but would also require some supplementary heat and/or mechanical energy. Still, waste heat could constitute most of the evaporator's energy input.

It's difficult. De-salination of salt water by evaporation is usually very inefficient because its never effective to remove all the water from a unit of intake, more likely just some small percentage, a) to use the balance to flush the saltier remnant back to the sea and b) to avoid having too much salt follow across to the de-sal outut. So a lot of the input energy goes into heating up a lot of water to boiling point, then flushing it back to the source. Also, for best efficiency, much of the heat which goes into evaporation should be recovered by pre-heating the inlet water, but that defeats the primary purpose of a turbine condenser, which wants the coldest water possible at entry.


lengould -

I think one still can have the 'coldest water possible at entry' by having the first stage of the multi-stage flash evaporator serve (at least in part) as the condenser for the turbine(s).

Alternatively, the warm reject from the evaporation system can also serve to heat the feedwater into the evaporator.

Regardless of the drawbacks you've mentioned, these large multi-stage evaporators are quite efficient in that they require only a small fraction of the approx. 1,150 BTU/lb energy required to convert ambient temperature water into vapor. Regardless, when you're desalinating large quantities of water, no matter what you do, you're going to be consuming a lot of energy.

As I've said earlier, desalination should only be a last resort .... something to make up for a shortfall after all other water management measures have been exhausted.

Optimum inlet water temperature for RO is about 25C I believe. Perhaps a hybrid system of RO and flash could use that.

Let me change that for you.

As I've said earlier, desalination should only be a last resort .... something to make up for a shortfall after all other cheaper water management measures have been exhausted.

So a lot of the input energy goes into heating up a lot of water to boiling point, then flushing it back to the source.

Most distillation units are multiple-effect, dropping the water stream through several pressure stages.  The heat from condensation at one stage is used to re-heat the salt water in the next stage.

Also, for best efficiency, much of the heat which goes into evaporation should be recovered by pre-heating the inlet water, but that defeats the primary purpose of a turbine condenser, which wants the coldest water possible at entry.

You're already reducing the efficiency by heating your seawater to 60°C or so; that becomes your condenser temp.  Recovering heat in the still just lets you process more water.

I get the feeling that most coastal California areas would do better using e.g. methane digesters instead of conventional flush toilets, and put solar stills on the roofs to produce most or all of the remaining fresh water needs.  These systems would be cheaper, scale better, and have very low operational energy requirements.

I can see why Debbie Cook lost her latest election.

The gratuitous, fallacious comparison of corn ethanol to water desalination shows what a sloppy thinker she is. And calling the 47 cent/gallon ethanol subsidy "huge" shows she plays fast and loose with the facts.

If California is becoming unlivable because of incompetent government it appears to me that Debbie has been doing her share. I would not vote for her either.

And if living in the California desert is finally collapsing, let people move out. That is the most effective solution. There are areas of the Midwest that have abundant supplies of energy and water.

I do dread people with the California mind set coming here though. But we all have to make some sacrifices.

God forbid they move water intensive industries to places with abundant water like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo, and other Rust Belt cities. It would drive up real estate values to those like California.
I heard an NPR story about a farmer in northern Michigan growing California style veggies in inexpensive hoop houses well into the winter. A hoop house is a temporary greenhouse made of plastic sheeting over plastic arches. It more than doubled his growing season and was quite profitable. The lesson is that we don't need to grow all that food in what is arid pasture land for cattle and sheep at best.

Michigan is great--but not all Californians could move there, or to Wisconsin or Minnesota. However, with the development of a new technology, they might not have to mover up north, even though I'm sure there would be a huge welcoming committee waiting for them, like ones they've seen in Oregon and Washington.

One-fourth of the agricultural output of the country is from California' central valley, which has just been placed under a water embargo from the feds.

Californians could increase their acreage of arable land, and even produce drinking water using techniques described at

It's remains to be demonstrated how much acreage the annual national output of polyethylene would be able to cover, however.

Abundant supplies of water in the Midwest? Plenty of energy?

It seems X too needs to do some research. The U.S. is finding it more and more difficult to obtain fresh water supplies without wrecking the environment. The Ogallala aquifer is depleting rapidly and will soon be too expensive to pump. Fracing designed to liberate tight gas is poisoning aquifers all over the midwest.

We are too many, relying on too little energy. There will not be market driven moves of populations in any effective way. Yes, we will see mass migrations and plenty of death on the dusty trail to nowhere, but we will not see, once again, the movement of people from devastated, overpopulated lands to "new frontiers" where all we need do is show up with our smallpox infested bodies and blankets only to let "nature" kill off the indigenous. There are no new continents to despoil. Those days are over. We now have to live in our filth, our stink, our idiocy, and our meaningless lives.

Too bad we can't seem to figure out the main problem. Where is Dr. Bartlett when we need him?

Dr. Bartlett is doing well in Boulder. Friends saw him last week.

x calls Debbie Cook a "sloppy thinker" who plays "fast and loose with the facts".

I think psychologists call that Projection

Now THAT was really downright nasty, x.
Over a tiny throw-away mention of ethanol.
I'm about as positive on corn ethanol as anyone but even I acknowledge that it has problems.
California is among other things in a multi-year drought.
When Iowa endures a severe drought (or devastating floods or crop infestation or crashing corn prices or eliminating ag subsidies)as it surely will, we can all sit around and wonder about the stupidity of corn farmers and how we need to let them perish.

I am sick to death of hateful american individualism/selfishness. I can only wonder what Europeans and others think of such a wretched nation.

Places that already have RO desalination charge $1-$5 per kilolitre retail for water. That's 26c per US gallon at the low end. You can work that out in acre-feet.

Electrical generators with 1000MWe output and cooling towers lose about 50 megalitres per day in evaporation. You can work that out in acre-feet (it's a lot). Therefore you might as well combine desal with new electrical generation on the coastline.

A number of calculators seem askew today, see upthread. $1 per 1000 liters is 0.26 cents per gallon... (utterly trivial for domestic uses, not so trivial for watering large areas of land.)

Desalination - Water up the Drain?

Ocean water desal ozzy style for uranium mining ops:

Where I stay its hard to imagine water shortages. I yearn to swim in a warm ocean and to be baked by a beating Sun. But the equinox approaches.

Nice article Debbie. Maybe you need to consider moving southern California into a temperate zone?

I read that link in conjunction with another press release today about the desalination site for the expansion of Olympic Dam some 300km from the coast. It seems they want to dredge the adjoining harbour to take bigger ships. Maybe the idea is to concentrate mixed copper/gold/uranium ore just using local groundwater and ship the concentrate to China. In other words cancel the coastal desal plant. More profit for shareholders fewer jobs for locals.

This a looming issue in Australia with China trying to buy coal and iron ore operations as well as setting up an Antarctic base to study 'climate change'. However the Chinese seem more interested in drilling ore bodies than ice cores.

If politics rules out nuke/desal co-location for Australia other dry countries like Jordan are nonetheless going that route.

There is a lot in the article about cost.

However nothing about the cost of the alternative;

How much do you think it would cost to move Sydney
to Northern NSW or to Nth Queensland ? Hmmmm

Because that is the ultimate alternative if it comes to the crunch. A plant that can top up the supply and
get a city past the dry period would be worth every penny. Evacuation would be very expensive.
Don't fool yourself it would not come to that.

The cheaper alternatives for Sydney in order are(1) stop watering gardens from mains water( use rainwater tanks)(2)install half flush toilet tanks(3) re-cycle sewerage for industrial uses and watering parks(4) collect and purify storm water; possibly by reverse osmosis.
At today's water use rates Warragamba dam can store about 10 years supply of water, so severe restrictions can be put in place years before running out. To fill the reservoir, relies upon rare ( once in 20 year) high rainfall events across the 9,000 sq km catchment. Ten other smaller dams supply water during high rainfall periods.

There are alternatives as mentioned earlier to large scale desalination. We live in Sydney and last Sept installed a 10000l tank which supplies most of household use. We still have a mains connection to the kitchen and the system will automatically switch over to mains if the water level in the tank gets low.
In the 6 months it has been in use we have reduced our mains draw by around 80%, this included waiting for rain to fill the tank initially and then the tank running low due to a very dry summer. Now with a full tank, it is supplying us with 95% of our water, which is around 200l per day, our mains use is around 15l per day.
It is a nice feeling having a shower using your own water that has been heated by the sun!

That's 5.5 m3/year or 1448 gal/year... Sound like not a lot ;) But it's of course much better to build a new nuclear powerplant and to start with desalination. This is way too low tech!

Whether in favor of desal or not, it is interesting to see how innovative solar-powered solutions like could change the economics of water purification. At the very least fossil-free desalination technologies should be tried in developing countries where the lack of potable water is literally a matter of life or death.

Sorry to hear you lost to the pig Rohrabacher. I travel on business to HB a couple times a year and try to get around by human power as much as possible while there. I would think with the nice weather that more people would as well, but except for bikers on the PCH, I don't see much foot or bike traffic. Huntington Beach is a city of enclaves apparently. If the desalination plants or oil rigs are not in their cul-de-sac, they must not care?

About 20 years ago I spent some time in Sitges, Spain, which is just south of Barcelona. The whole town had salt water hooked up to the plumbing system. If I recall it right it seemed like the city screwed up with supplying fresh water. So the city government in desperation said, "just give 'em salt water." So everyone bathed and washed in salt water. People had to buy bottled water to drink. This might be a solution for the future in water poor areas. I don't know what corrosive effect the salt water had on the pipes. Perhaps a future mayor of Phoenix will run on a platform of building a pipeline to the ocean.

I just had another thought. Maybe folks in Phoenix and Las Vegas and similar landlocked desert areas won't need to build pipelines to the ocean. They will be able to utilize oil pipelines that will be abandoned in the future. Might be hard to get them clean. Perhaps cleaning the oil pipelines for washing water for the desert will be part of Obama's Economic Stimulus program #6 toward the end of his second term.

It people were rational, we'd help Los Angeles build a desalinization plant in exchange for their Colorado river water. Not that that's gonna happen.

I am curious, how much m3 of water use is average in the US per household (domestic use). In Holland my mother uses about 50m3/year (1 person house hold) and my sister about 100 m3/year (4 person household. We still take a shower every day, use the toilet normally and have no grey water recycling or rain water catchment system. Even there are a lot things to do to make it better. We could catch rainwater for the toilets, washing machine, watering the lawn etc. Cost for such a system would be appr. EUR 7500 including installation, including a small buffer tank which automatically changes to tap water if the rain water in the tank runs out. This would save approximately 2/3 of the water use, so back to about 15 m3 for my mother.

After your tank you could also build a rain water infiltration system. pending in the soil of course. Cost for this would be minimal. EUR 1500 or so. This would mean that all run offs from your roofs which you will not use for domestic use will be infiltrated and does not go into the sewer where it has to be cleaned. Smaller sewer required and less storm water to be cleaned.

Other things what can be done is make urinals which do not use water at all! (I have installed them in petrol stations and they had a pay back time of < 1 year). Install them everywhere and imagine the amount of water you can safe.

Energy which you don't use for cleaning water means that you have more for other purposes. Therefor even using wind or solar power for desalination is still less good then saving water.

Sorry that being European i have small problems with American units specially exotic ones like Acre/foot

I too had a good giggle.. acre foot. Or how many zlotkies to the pood? Don't discourage them please. Far too entertaining.
What I would like to see is an analysis of how many kilograms of carbon it takes to deliver a cubic meter to my tap. Kgs/m^3.

10 trillion gallons per year / 112 million US households x
3.78 l/gal / 1000 l per m3= 337 m3 per year per US household.

Actually this is one area where renewables can help us pump fresh water, just like Holland. Renewable wind/solar can intermittently pump water into watertowers and pressurized tanks for on demand consumption. This is more efficient than using the energy for desalinization.


The diffrence is huge! I am shocked. I am prety sure that in Holland we could reduce 50% per year without loosing comfort with existing technical measures like these

A four person house hold would use about 40 m3 /year -> 11.000 gallons/year

In Holland we use water towers to keep the pressure in the system and not to store water, but with the use of better and newer pumps most of the watertowers are no longer in use. lik this one

which has been transformed in to an office. Others can be found if you follow the links in the bottom (some have very nice architecture

I am sure that when the USA starts using the same technology, there is no good reason why Americans shoud use more water then Europeans, at least in and around the house... This would reduce the amount of water used with 90% (for households). Then there is no good reason to start building desalination plants or new power plants, but you would be able to switch of some power plants and save the energy.

Also the construction of all these buffer tanks is very labour intensive, does not require a huge amount of imported technology and do not require a lot of planning, so there would be a big and immediate impact on the economy, it would be good for the environment and the saving of drinking water starts immediately and you do not have to wait 2-3 years untill your new desalination plant comes online or you have constructed a new nuclear power plant.

Actually, I was thinking of the way the Dutch used renewable wind to intermittently pump their country out of the North Sea. I wonder how much fossil fuel would be needed to drain all those acre-feet?

BTW, the Passive House standard is for 25 liters of domestic hot water per person per day, which would be 9 m3 per year

I don't know how much, but of course it much easier to install a completely automated pumping system then have a windmil which also needs an operator living in the building... This operator also needs to anticipate some bad wetter... To many people at work, the poor guy can not take a holiday... It's a meaning full job which can be reinstated prety quickly as most windmills still can be operated (although they only work supporting the present pumps) but when they operate the operator get's a small bonus for the amount of energy saved.

The later bigger polders were pumped out with steam This one is one of three which pumped out the Haarlemmer meer, in this polder Schiphol is located.

25 liters per person would be 36.5 m3/year or 10.000 gal/year for a 4 person house hold. Not to difficult to reach.

I really enjoyed that link even though you undermined my point about renewable energy.

ASME has a page of that steam pump station also.

Coupling energy generation and water desalinisation wether through using wasted heat of coal, nuclear or even gaz power plant and even better solar power plant is a great way to leverage the investment. Energy islands as proposed in the following link

has a great potential proving we can afford it, but yet we have to keep in mind that whatever way we find to increase the flow of fresh water it will only pushes the demand up just as when you build more highways to ease the traffic it encourages people to buy more car.

Desalinisation shouldn't be started before water conservation policy has been implemented, technologies exist and are operational in countries like Israel where most of used water is recycled and dripping is used to water agriculture.

As a french I am profondly shocked that all the winland are irrigated in Napa and Sonoma Valley. In France irrigating the whine is strictly prohibited even in the south east of the country where rain precipitation are even less than in north California, and it doesn't prevent France to produce more wine than French people can drink.

American people have to land from their energy, water, food, sqaure metter wasteful lifestyle and realize that their life will be better off with a lower footprint.

Well-said, Dou. You are "spot-on".

But, do French wine-producing methods affect or deplete the quality of the soil in which they are grown? How much fertilizer is needed? Also, does France have to import "regular" food to compensate for the land allotted for wine growing?

In the case of food shortages, will the "elite" allow the land they now use to grow wine be converted over to the growing of food to feed starving children?

Inquiring minds want to know?


Whatever gave you the idea that only the "elite" drinks wine, or that the "elite" decides what is grown on any specific parcel of land?

President Of Zimbabwe, the Honerable Comrade Bob Mugabe said he wanted 6 Million people in His country. He has 11 Million.
Bob gets it.
It just takes a certain mindset.
BTW, hands up those who thaught removing western civilization and placing Bob in charge was a Good Thing.
I think he is ahead of the pack.
Mr Darwin will be the judge. I have no enthusiam for His game. Still, we all have to play. I hope our side pulls through.

There's nothing at all wrong with desalinationg seawater, as long as you don't use fossil fuels to generate the power needed.

But reasonable people who want clean air and cheap electricity never do that anyway, so what's the problem?

Poseidon stated at one of the Task Force meetings that it was planning on electricity at 6¢/kWh—a rate that is not available to any industrial user in the state

TOU-8-CPP at 50KV and above is charged ~4, 6, and 8 c/kWh for off-peak (10 hrs), mid-peak/shoulder (8 hrs), and on-peak (6 hrs) respectively, so a 6c/kWh average, or less provided the company restricts operation during peak, something they're likely to do, seems to be a reasonable for a large electricity consumer in CA, barring of course getting bent over by DWR. ;)

California doesn't have a "fresh water shortage problem", it has an "excessive evaporation problem" in the large surface areas over which the fresh water is applied.

Are seawater greenhouses the solution?

There seem to be a lot of ideas out there for the use of seawater, waiting for widespread adoption.  Another that I saw some time ago is downdraft convection towers which cool air at the top using evaporation from seawater, and exhaust the cool air at ground level.  This could eliminate a substantial amount of a city's heat island effect, and I seem to recall that the energy from the weight of the chilled air would more than pay for the energy required to pump the water.

Before Mugabe came to power, the country was the breadbasket of Africa. Now it is starving. A greater sabotage of carrying capacity is hard to imagine. And you say he gets it?