California Looking at 25 Year Old Solution for Current Drought Problem


California is currently in its fourth year of a severe drought. The state has just faced its warmest winter on record, and is now facing for the third year in a row, an atmospheric pattern that is driving away any kind of significant precipitation. Desperate times call for desperate measures. California is about to step back in time 25 years or so, and try to help solve their drought issues by using a desalination facility to make salt water drinkable.

In the late 1980s, California was facing their biggest drought to date, one that lasted nearly seven years. People were brainstorming all kinds of solutions in an effort to try and get usable water to the people of California. There was talk of trucking tanks of water down from Canada. Even a discussion on hauling a glacier down the coastline from Alaska. Most of the solutions were either cost prohibitive, far fetched, or a heavy burden on existing resources without long term fixes. In the end, it was decided to build a desalination plant in Santa Barbara. Just as the plant was being completed in 1991, the rains began to fall. Lots of rain. In fact, twice as much rain fell in one month than the state gets in an entire year. By the time the Charles E. Meyer Desalination plant was ready, the drought was over. The facility ran for six months to make sure it worked, and then the doors were shut for good. Until now.

The city of Santa Barbara is now planning on re-opening the plant. Joshua Haggmark is the city’s water resource manager, and the one that has been tasked with getting the facility back up and running. He realizes the challenges that lie ahead, and how much work needs to be done. Just from a technology standpoint, think about the computers and the technology that was being used in the late 80s and early 90s. Floppy disks and zip drives are about as good as it gets says Haggmark. After all, it is a modern day solution from 25 years ago.

The way the plant works, is there is an intake pipe where sea water will flow in. The salt water will get sifted through gravel and sand filters, and then in the end when all foreign particles of debris are gone, it will get dumped into the reverse osmosis membranes, or salt removers. For every two gallons of sea water that goes in, one gallon of drinking water will come out. What is taken out is an extremely salty brine, that will be redeposited back into the ocean 30 miles out.

Californians have some concerns about the desalination process. One being the salty brine that will be left over from the salt removal. There are questions on how it will effect marine life, and the environment. There are also concerns about the energy that it will take to run the plant. There is a hefty amount of energy needed to run the facility, and apparently all of the energy types that are available to use for the plant are not very environmentally friendly. Officials say that they will need to explore alternative energy sources, if they are to bring this 25 year old solution into play, and make today’s drought problems a thing of the past for California.

By Alec Rosenberg


The Washington Post


The Economist

Photo by James Marvin Phelps – Flickr License

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