Desalination Plant May Solve California's Drinking Water Woes
Water authorities in San Diego approved a $320 million desalination plant this week, a test move that optimists hope will put an end to the fragility of California's drinking water infrastructure without causing imbalances in local ecosystems.
The plant will be built near Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, and will be the first of its kind on the U.S. west coast and the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere. Resting on the new plant's shoulders will be the hopes of finding a permanent, economical solution to the water shortages that have historically plagued California.
With an extremely dense urban population, high demand and little apparent regard for conservation, California's water infrastructure has long been on precarious ground. Desalination has been on the horizon for decades, but has only recently become financially feasible thanks to improvements in technology.
The desalination facility will use a process known as reverse osmosis to filter the sea salt out of the water using extremely fine membranes. When construction is complete and the facility is running at full capacity, it's expected to treat 100 million gallons of sea water per day. The project's developers hope to produce about 50 million gallons of potable water by the year 2011.
Opponents of the project object to assertions that the plant's environmental impact will be minimal, counterclaiming that millions of fish will be killed as a result of the pumping process. This, they posit, has the potential to completely upset food chains in the ocean. They're also concerned that the brine that the plant will reintroduce to the ocean will contaminate the water.
Supporters hope that the desalination processes will prove to be efficient, economically viable and minimally damaging to the ocean ecosystem.
Either way, California is running out of ways to address what could easily become a drinking water crisis. A single extended drought could be enough to affect millions of people's access to drinking water, especially if current consumption rates are sustained. With a ballooning population and barely any penetration of the conservation message, desalination may prove to be the only viable long-term solution, regardless of costs or environmental effects.