Friday, May 1, 2015

Water, Water, Everywhere

Dateline: California, Spring 2015. California is in the grips of what may be the worst drought in its history. Four years into the natural disaster exacerbated by global climate change, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared an emergency and mandated citizens curtail their water consumption by 25 percent – All citizens except for those engaged in agriculture, which surprisingly accounts for 80 percent of the state’s water usage. It seems someone had the not-so-bright idea that the desert would be an ideal place for agriculture, especially for crops like almonds, which require a gallon of water to grow each individual nut. Perhaps it was the same person who had the nutty idea to exempt crop growers from any restrictions on water use. This leads to an interesting math conundrum: if every non-agricultural Californian stopped using every drop of water, the state would only decrease its usage by 20 percent – still short five percent of the governor’s mandated goal, since the crop growers are not subject to any restrictions. Doomsayers are predicting the imminent demise of California, not caused by earthquakes severing the landmass into the ocean, but rather by drought.

For decades, the running joke had been that an earthquake would split the San Andreas Fault, sliding California into the Pacific Ocean and carving out valuable beachfront property along the newly-formed Nevada coastline. Apparently nature had other plans. After all, who could have predicted a desert would run out of water? Such a shame there’s no source of water anywhere near California. Or is there?

California has the longest coastline of any state in the Union. Its coastline stretches 1,100 miles, separating the drought-stricken state from the largest ocean the world. The Pacific Ocean covers 60,060,700 square miles – 28 percent of the entire planet. That’s a lot of water. And the state of California sits next to it. There’s just one problem: it’s saltwater. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone invented a way to remove salt from saltwater to make it safe to drink? Think of all the almonds California farmers could grow with 60 million square miles of potable water. What a shame there’s no way to do that. Or is there?

Desalinization isn't new; men have been doing it since ancient times. They've had to, since only one percent of the planet’s water is fresh water. There are many methods of desalinization: heat distillation, ion extraction, freezing desalinization, solar humidification, and reverse osmosis. I won’t bore you with the details of each method – even though I find them rather fascinating. Suffice it to say, the technology exists to turn saltwater into drinking water.

But the doomsayers are joined by their cousins, the naysayers, who proclaim desalinization is too expensive; it will adversely affect marine life; and it results in briny waste. But are these objections legitimate? While desalinization is expensive – construction of a desalinization plant can cost up to $450 million – how expensive would the collapse of California’s economy be? California’s gross domestic product (GDP) is $2 trillion; if it were a country, it would have the eighth highest GDP in the world, coming in ahead of Russia. Can California, or the nation, truly afford to tell Californians to pack up and “Go East, young man”? Wouldn't it be less expensive in the long run to construct desalinization plants along the coastline? Such an infrastructure project would also help the economy by decreasing unemployment. While some marine life might be affected, it would literally be a drop in the ocean. Remember, the Pacific Ocean covers 28 percent of the entire planet.

Briny waste is another matter. Every two gallons of water desalinized results in one gallon of fresh water and one gallon of salty brine. The brine can be returned to the ocean in a location that allows it to be dispersed quickly so its environmental effect is minimized. Brine can be recycled into saltcrete, which is put into an asphalt mixture for making roads. It can be turned into Epsom salt. Brine can also be used as salt to de-ice roads. 

Desalinization is not a perfect answer to California’s drought problem. Care will have to be taken in the disposal of the brine byproduct to prevent ecological damage to marine life. But it is an answer. The impractical alternative is to reverse Horace Greeley’s exhortation for manifest destiny and abandon the sere lands of the West. However, it is inconceivable that Americans would be willing to give up the dream factories of Hollywood and Disneyland.

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