Southern California is a leader in desalination technology, cornering almost 50 percent of the world market.
It's ironic enough that a region plagued by water shortages and rate hikes that threaten to devastate local agriculture is located on the ocean. Being a leading developer of the technology that turns ocean water into drinking water makes Southern California's water problems even more puzzling.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy said, "If we could produce fresh water from salt water at a low cost, that would indeed be a great service to humanity, and would dwarf any other scientific accomplishment."
It is now more than four decades since Kennedy started massive funding programs to research and develop cost-effective desalination technology, a goal Kennedy thought we'd reach by the end of the 1960s. But what have we really accomplished?
There are two ways to get pure water from seawater-distillation and reverse osmosis. Distillation involves boiling contaminated water and capturing the rising steam, which is pure H2O. Because of the amount of energy required to boil water, distillation has never been a cost-effective way to produce drinking water on a regional scale. Reverse osmosis (RO) involves pushing water molecules over a membrane through which salt molecules cannot pass.
"Think of it this way," says Peter MacLaggan, vice president of Poseidon Resources, the private company that's in the process of building a desalination plant in Carlsbad, "on a larger scale, water molecules would be about the size of baseballs, and salt molecules would be the size of softballs. The baseballs can pass through the holes in the membrane, but the softballs can't."
The membranes used in reverse-osmosis desalination technology today were developed as a result of the funding Kennedy poured into desalination research and development in the 1960s, which was in conjunction with the research and development of atomic energy.
General Atomics, a San Diego company, developed and patented the spiral-wound reverse osmosis (RO) membrane, which accounts for 98 percent of the RO membranes used throughout the world today.
The membranes themselves look like sheets of paper, attached like Rolodex sheets to a hollow pipe, wound in a tight spiral and placed in a large tube. There's 450 square feet of membrane in each tube. As saltwater is pushed through the tube, the spinning sheets of membrane filter out the salt and send pure water through a hollow pipe in the center.
Several manufacturing companies have split off from General Atomics and specialize in making different parts of the entire system, from the membranes to the tubes that encase the membranes. In fact, local vendors and manufacturers control nearly half of the international market for desalination technology. According to the American Membrane Technology Association, there are 35 desalination-related companies in San Diego County that employ approximately 2,200 employees and earn roughly $200 million in annual revenues.
Hydranautics, located in Oceanside, is the leading manufacturer of RO membrane technology, with a 28.7-percent share of the world market.
"In seaside communities around the world, desalination has become the most feasible option for a clean water supply," explains Serenity Gardner, marketing manager for Hydranautics. "In Spain, for example, in order to help meet their growing demands of clean water, they have turned to desalination with large-scale, state-of-the-art purification plants, [and] Hydranautics has become the preferred membrane supplier to these and other [spiral-bound reverse-osmosis] plants around the world. Their demand has overwhelmed their large rivers and aquifers, forcing them to look for other sources, just as we are now doing in Southern California."
The main constraint of RO desalination has always been the cost. Water must be pushed through the membrane under very high pressure, which requires a lot of energy. Because of the high energy price tag, RO technology was not useful for desalinating ocean water until the late 1980s, and was instead used to treat brackish water, which contains less salt than seawater.
Desalination "is still the most expensive way of acquiring water, so you want to use it carefully as part of an all-around conservation plan," says Randy Truby, chairman of the board for Affordable Desalination Collaboration (ADC).
ADC is a nonprofit organization-made up of private companies, state and federal government agencies and water districts-that promotes desalination technology for the mutual benefit of the companies manufacturing the technology and the private and government agencies that are looking to desalination as a viable means of acquiring water.
"More than 120 countries are now using desalination technologies to provide potable water, most commonly in the Persian Gulf, where energy costs are low," says David K. Garman, assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy of the U.S. Department of Energy. Many Middle Eastern cities like Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, are desert oases that have flourished using desalination technology.
Reverse-osmosis technology is also used by the Navy, cruise ships, off-shore oil rigs, factories and communities that use it to treat wastewater. The question that remains is why Southern California has not used desalination to produce drinking water on a larger scale, and whether the technology will ease the region's need for water any time soon.
The desalination industry
In the absence of strong political will and financial support by leaders like President Kennedy, private industry has taken over the fate of desalination technology in the marketplace, which has become a vibrant global industry because there is always a demand for potable water.
Gardner, of Hydranautics, notes that "from a membrane-manufacturing perspective, the issue at hand here is really supply and demand of water, as the technology is already in place. Now that the primary source of Southern California's water supply, the Colorado River, is threatened, we need to look for other options for new water."
One example of the limitations of the marketplace is the ongoing efforts of Poseidon Resources. Before Poseidon can build its desalination plant in Carlsbad, it has to find a buyer for the 50 million gallons of water per day it will produce. The city of Carlsbad has already agreed to buy about half of the plant's output, but that agreement will not result in a profit for Poseidon for some time. In an effort to stabilize the cost to residents, the city will pay the going rate for water imported from the Colorado River for the next 30 years.
At this moment, desalinated water costs more than imported water, so Poseidon will be selling water to Carlsbad for less than the cost of production. As communities between the Colorado River and San Diego County continue to grow, more demand is put on the water supply, and the price continues to increase. On the other hand, the price of desalinated water will remain constant, or continue to decrease as technology improves and the process becomes more efficient.
The Carlsbad plant
The reason Carlsbad is an ideal site for a desalination plant is the Encina Power Station. A freestanding desalination facility is far too expensive to build and maintain, so all large-scale desalination projects are built onto existing power plants in order to conserve energy. The original concept in the 1960s was to build desalination plants in conjunction with nuclear power plants. There are desalination systems operating in existing nuclear power plants today, like the one at Diablo Canyon, but they are on a small scale and used only to provide water for the plant itself.
The Encina Power Station is located by the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, which is fed by the ocean. Poseidon Resources has purchased a 60-year renewable lease on the land where the Encina Power Station is located, which includes the Agua Hedionda Lagoon. At this time, Poseidon has a small pilot plant up and running on the site where they plan to build a permanent facility. Poseidon hopes to have a full-scale operational desalination plant in place as early as 2008.
The Encina Power Station pulls 600 million gallons of water from the lagoon every day, uses the water like a giant radiator to cool its turbines and puts the water back into the ocean 10 degrees warmer than it was before. Each day, the Poseidon plant will take 100 million gallons of the water the power station is already using and divert it for desalination treatment.
The seawater is first filtered through course sand, then fine sand, then another set of filters to remove microscopic impurities. The filtered saltwater is then forced through the spiral-wound RO membranes at a very high pressure. Half of the water leaves the plant as purified drinking water, the other half as a concentrated salty brine. The 50 million gallons of brine produced everyday is then mixed back into the 500 million gallons of outflow water from the power station and put back into the ocean with a 0.3-percent increase in salinity.
The drinking water produced by the RO system is actually too pure and must be chemically treated before it enters the city's water supply because it would corrode the pipes.
Poseidon Resources and the San Diego County Water Authority have completed separate environmental-impact reports (EIR) that conclude that the drinking water the plant produces and the runoff water that's put back into the ocean are safe for the ecosystem. The solid waste produced from the pre-filtration system would be sent back into the ocean via the sewer system, and has also been shown to be environmentally sound, according to the EIRs.
The EIRs have come under fire by local environmentalists. The Desal Response Group and the Southern California Watershed Alliance filed a lawsuit against the city of Carlsbad in July in an effort to make the city repeat its original EIR process-but they were forced to withdraw it days later because it missed a legal deadline.
"We believe that desalination will be used in Southern California in the future," says Conner Everts, the Executive Director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, "but there are a lot of environmental consequences that we need to understand first." Everts, who has served on the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency and the Casitas Municipal Water District, noted also that a large-scale desalination facility has yet to work in the United States.
The California Coastal Commission, which is responsible for issuing several necessary permits before Poseidon can begin construction of the full-scale desalination facility, declined to comment on the prospective plant because Poseidon is not yet at the point where it has submitted an application to the Coastal Commission. Tom Lester, a spokesperson for the Coastal Commission, said the agency does not have an official stance for or against ocean desalination, and that it reviews permits on a case-by-case basis.
Between the city of Carlsbad and other buyers, Poseidon has about two-thirds of its future water output sold, but it must sell the other third before plant construction can begin. One prospective buyer for the remaining 17 million gallons per day was the San Diego County Water Authority. Negotiations between the Water Authority and Poseidon have been off and on for the past five years.
The Water Authority has acknowledged the necessity for a desalination program and plans to use desalination for 15 percent of the county's water supply by the year 2020. John Liarakos, a spokesperson for the San Diego County Water Authority says "desalination is an integral part of the Water Authority's plan to diversify the county's water resources and reduce our dependency on imported water." When asked what exactly the Water Authority's plan is, Liarakos' answer becomes much less decisive.
The San Diego County Water Authority is a state-created organization consisting of 23 member agencies, which are mostly city water districts represented by boards of directors. The Water Authority's mission is to provide safe, reliable water to its member agencies and, ultimately, to the residents and businesses of San Diego County. However well-intentioned the agency, it's difficult to make strong, groundbreaking decisions through boards and committees. Without strong leadership and a clear plan for how exactly the Water Authority will diversify San Diego County's water supply, it's difficult to say whether San Diego County will commit to getting the plant in Carlsbad built and operational by 2008, or whether the region will have any source of desalinated water at any point in the near future.
It's unclear whether the Water Authority wanted to buy water from Poseidon or participate in the actual operation of the facility. The question of who controls the plant is an important one because it's the difference between a government agency controlling a large portion of the region's water supply, or a private, for-profit company.
Some relevant concerns for the San Diego County Water Authority were the problems that Tampa Bay Florida had with a desalination plant built by Poseidon.
According to a 2004 San Diego-Union Tribune story, Tampa Bay Water bought out Poseidon's interest in the project and took over plant operations in 2001 following the bankruptcy of two of Poseidon's subcontractors. The plant was finished behind schedule and had further problems during operation.
The primary problem was that the pre-filtration system was not removing all of the larger impurities from the seawater. The RO membranes were being clogged by the contaminants and had to be replaced on a weekly basis, adding about $1 million to the annual estimated cost of running the plant.
Poseidon has said the problems were caused by a change in the pre-filtration system that was made after Poseidon had left the project. Tampa Bay Water maintains that the change in the system was made under Poseidon's oversight, while the company was still in charge of the project. The controversy itself was enough to frighten the already-indecisive San Diego County Water Authority away from negotiations with Poseidon in 2004.
On July 27, the Water Authority voted to drop negotiations with Poseidon altogether, which does not mean that the Water Authority will no longer be involved in the project; it simply means they will not bid for any amount of control over the plant or the water produced.
"The Water Authority is still committed to getting the plant in Carlsbad running, and has decided to rally behind the project and help make funding available," says Poseidon's Peter MacLaggan. "This actually removes a lot of uncertainty and clears the way for us to re-engage other entities who are prepared to buy the water the plant will produce. I fully expect that by the end of the year, we will have all of the plant's output sold and be ready to move forward with the project."
The San Diego County Water Authority has considered the possibility of creating desalination sites at the San Onofre nuclear power plant, as well as locations in Southern San Diego and Tijuana, but none of these possibilities have resulted in any kind of plan of action.
At this stage in the development of the technology, desalination will not provide an ultimate solution to Southern California's water shortages.
"One source for new water is the desalination of seawater, the other is wastewater reclamation," says Gardner of Hydranautics. "We know from experience that the public is not ready for wastewater reclamation for potable use in this region.... When this option was addressed in the past, the media coined it as "toilet to tap' water. As such, reclaimed wastewater is used for irrigation and industrial water supplies in the region. That leaves seawater to meet the growing water demands in Southern California." Gardner also noted that RO membranes are used for waste reclamation as well as desalination.
But this logic seems backwards to environmentalists, who believe wastewater reclamation should be the first priority, not desalination. "It's irresponsible," says Everts, to waste water that can be recycled "or dump polluted water into the ocean. It's an engineer's dream to be able to use the ocean as an unlimited source of drinking water, but if we put the same amount of energy and resources into recycling wastewater, we could solve much of our water issues and help the environment at the same time."
Recently, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders urged the City Council to drop renewed talk about wastewater reclamation despite a city-sponsored citizens group's recommendation to pursue such a program.
Truby of the ADC thinks wastewater reclamation could be accepted by the general public with the proper public-relations campaign and community education. He points out that many cities around the world-he cited Singapore City as an example-have had success using wastewater reclamation as part of their overall water-resource programs.
If an RO membrane or distillation process yields two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, the source doesn't matter because a water molecule is the same whether it came from an ocean, a lake or a drainage system. As a matter of fact, said Liarakos of the Water Authority, although the county doesn't recycle water for residential use, San Diegans are already consuming reclaimed wastewater because many of the communities along the Colorado River purify wastewater and put it back into the river. That means that a portion of San Diego's imported water is reclaimed wastewater.
Ultimately, public opinion may have little influence over when and how San Diego County solves its water shortage. The issue may very well come down to the survival of the local economy, which relies greatly on agriculture. San Diego's search for water independence is not an option, but a necessity.
MacLaggan expressed confidence that San Diego County can achieve water independence within the next 50 to 100 years through desalination, conservation and reclamation.
Gardner expressed a similar view: "It is very realistic for Southern California to achieve water independence through the advances in seawater reverse-osmosis technologies. The cost will be higher, but as our new water sources become increasingly limited, communities and their local leaders will continue to see the need to do what it takes to ensure that their water supply is not affected by the politics of other state governments."
At this point, desalination is an important pursuit, and it seems that desalination and reclamation are two sides of the same coin, as they both use the same technology to produce potable water from non-potable water. As desalination technology is put to use on larger scales throughout the world, the process will continue to be refined and streamlined, and desalination will become a more economical option. There has even been hope that the technology may some day transform the most arid and uninhabitable regions around the world and alleviate the population-density problems in places like San Diego.
Whatever the final outcome may be, the fate of desalination and its impact on the world will not likely be exactly what President Kennedy envisioned when he initiated the government-sponsored research. In 1961, Kennedy presented a Special Message on Natural Resources to Congress, outlining his programs in water and electric-power development, and how he would use the technology to benefit not just the United States or the economy, but humanity in general:
"I now pledge that, when this know-how is achieved, it will immediately be made available to every nation in the world who wishes it, along with appropriate technical and other assistance for its use."