Monthly Archives: January 2014

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Image: Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter

Image: Sierra Club, Angeles Chapter

It’s tempting to see desalination as an eventual cure-all for parched places like California — something that is expensive to implement and run because of energy costs, but worth prioritizing someday. Someday, that is, when there is no other way to get enough freshwater. Many countries have turned to it.  Unfortunately, cost is not the only reason to put off desalination projects. Their byproducts, or waste, are bad for the environment and difficult to deal with safely. And in California, critics of seawater desalination would add that far more should be done through conservation before turning to drastic measures.

I recently wrote about solar-powered desalination as an alternative to traditional methods that might help California with its record-breaking drought, focusing on WaterFX and its solar distillation of agricultural run-off water for re-use. On Tuesday, The Guardian‘s Oliver Balch picked up on the story in some depth, referring to renewable desalination projects all over the world, but focusing on WaterFX. That prompted a thoughtful article by environmental journalist Chris Clarke for Southern California’s He asked an obvious and very important question: What about all the salt and other stuff we take out of the water?

At the end of any kind of desalination process, you get leftover piles of salt and buckets of super-salty brine. (Use any measurement metaphor you like, appropriate to scale: piles and buckets; hills and lakes; mountains and oceans.) You get a little freshwater and a lot of leftover crap, some potentially useful and some not, and there’s only so much you can do with it. With WaterFX’s solar distillation, you get brine laced with chemicals and solids from the soil, from fertilizers, motor oil and other sources. The company says it can sell the byproducts, but there’s room for skepticism (and leaky landfills standing by). With seawater, desalination projects tend to filter brine back into the ocean, where it dissolves over time. But brine waste, heavier than seawater, can smother sea life on the ocean floor. And, looking ahead, if huge coastal desalination projects continue to spring up all over the world, how much additional salinity can sea life tolerate? Even in the oceans, a little too much salt can kill.

One thing is relatively clear: Powering desalination with renewable energy should bring down long-term energy costs while providing freshwater. But questions and problems remain. In addition to pollution worries, the timing of when to make the big investment can be tricky. As Clarke points out, a large desalination plant opened in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1992 because of a drought. But the drought ended, and the plant just sat there because it was too expensive to run in the absence of a crippling water shortage. After its test runs, it never produced a drop of potable water. Now, the largest  desalination plant in the western hemisphere is slated for 2016 completion in Carlsbad, near San Diego, at a cost of $1 billion.

Read more:

UPDATE: Desalination could help California — but only if it’s done right – Los Angeles Times

UPDATE: California drought prompts first-ever “zero water allocation” – Los Angeles Times

In talk of solar desalination, there’s a salty elephant in the room –

Is solar-powered desalination the answer to water independence in California?The Guardian

California identifies 17 communities that could run dry within 100 days –

Carlsbad desalination plant construction on track to meet 2016 goal – KPBS San Diego

Related posts:

California’s State-of-the-State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, Environment, Industry, North America, Oceans, Pollution, Technology, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

EC Awards 50 Million Euros to 11 Innovative Water Projects

Image: European Commission

Image: European Commission

In Brussels on Thursday, the European Commission unveiled 11 projects slated to receive €50 million to support their innovative responses to “water-related challenges” (to put a lot of different fish in one tank, so to speak).

The projects involve 179 partners representing research organizations and private companies across 19 European countries. There’s a lot of variety in the types of work, as well. Three examples: smarter management of water distribution networks; biotech treatment of heavy metal pollution in wastewater; and new “aquaponic” systems combining aquaculture and hydroponics in agricultural production.  You can see the project names and acronyms listed in the tags accompanying this post, and more description of each project can be found here.

The funds come from the 2013 “Environment call” for projects of the European Union’s s Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7). This brings total FP7 funding for water-related projects, 2007 – 2013, to more than €1 billion. A new funding initiative rolled out this month, the Horizon 2020 program, is expected to bring another €165 million to water projects in its first round of calls.

Read more:

UPDATE: Event presentations now uploaded

European Commission press release

A summary of each of the 11 projects

European Union water policy overview

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Filed under Agriculture, Awards and Honors, Conservation, Environment, Europe, Events, Industry, Pollution, Research, Sustainability, Technology, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

The News From Davos: Big Business Now ‘Cares’ About Climate Change

Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

Image: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

A chill runs through me whenever I hear a sample of the gaffe from Mitt Romney’s 2011 presidential campaign speech in Iowa: “Corporations are people, my friend.” He was responding to a heckler. What he said was accurate in the eyes of the law in the United States; a corporation has the legal status and rights of a person. But it’s not hard to imagine that Romney was cheerfully referring to psychopathic friends who would blithely step over your body to reach profit.

Corporations as psychopaths is not a new idea, of course. The 2003  Canadian documentary film “The Corporation” makes the case, in a clinical sense, that if corporations are people, they’re psychos. Put simply, they lack empathy for others. They focus on profit alone. The free market rewards such self-interested ruthlessness.

Judging by news from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, public opinion and, more importantly, harsh economic reality, are pushing the corporate world to see that self-preservation now actually requires reactions to climate change. Many of today’s meetings of politicians, business leaders and reps from aid organizations in Davos, and a record number for the event overall, are about climate change and sustainable business practices. That’s a lot of talk from some influential people, and now that it’s about money as much as it is about doing good (or appearing to do so), maybe it will make a difference.

And, of course, as the mainstream media has well-recorded, the actor Matt Damon received an award in Davos for his work as co-founder, with Gary White, of, which works on access to freshwater for the world’s 800+ million who lack it. Damon is one of four recipients of the WEF’s Crystal Award, for artists who have contributed to a better world. The others are Peruvian opera star Juan Diego Flórez, American violinist and conductor Lorin Maazel, and the Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat.

Read more:

Industry awakens to the threat of climate change – The New York Times

Davos 2014: live and archived blog coverageGuardian Sustainable Business

2014 World Economic Forum: live updates from Davos – The Huffington Post

World Economic Forum 2014 Meeting – WEF

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Filed under Awards and Honors, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Europe, Events, Industry, NGOs, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Calif. State of the State Address: Brown’s Drought Plan in Broad Strokes

Calif. Gov. Brown delivers 2014 State of the State Address. Photo Credit: Justin Short, Office of the Governor.

Calif. Gov. Brown delivers 2014 State of the State Address. Photo Credit: Justin Short, Office of the Governor.

Yesterday, the same day I wrote about California’s dire 3-year drought, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. laid out the state’s plan regarding the water shortage in his annual State of the State address to the California legislature. It’s not the governor’s job to provide exhaustive detail here, and he doesn’t. The drought got about 15 of the speech’s 130 lines.

Here’s the part of the address about the drought:

Among all our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can’t control it. We can only live with it, and now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration. 

Right now, it is imperative that we do everything possible to mitigate the effects of the drought. I have convened an Interagency Drought Task Force and declared a State of Emergency. We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water. We need regulators to rebalance water rules and enable voluntary transfers of water and we must prepare for forest fires. As the State Water Action Plan lays out, water recycling, expanded storage and serious groundwater management must all be part of the mix. So too must be investments in safe drinking water, particularly in disadvantaged communities. We also need wetlands and watershed restoration and further progress on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

It is a tall order.

But it is what we must do to get through this drought and prepare for the next.

We do not know how much our current problem derives from the build-up of heat-trapping gasses, but we can take this drought as a stark warning of things to come. The United Nations Panel on Climate Change says – with 95 percent confidence – that human beings are changing our climate. This means more droughts and more extreme weather events, and, in California, more forest fires and less snow pack.

UPDATE: California drought prompts first-ever “zero water allocation” – Los Angeles Times

Related Posts:

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential (Jan. 22, 2014)

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Environment, Events, North America, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Civilization Lost? California’s 500-Year Drought Potential

Image: NOAA

Image: NOAA

As a California resident for 18 years after college, I got to know dry weather pretty well. Right from the start, having arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the middle of the 1987  – 1992 drought, I came to see cloudless skies, brown grass and the occasional dryness-induced nosebleed as normal — so much so that the the incessant winter rains that returned years later seemed, briefly, to be freakish.

Now the state is in an even worse dry period — 2013 was the driest year since record-keeping began in the 1840s — and predictable doom-saying has ensued. It’s pretty hard to resist. After all, we know from the geological record that droughts in the area hundreds and thousands of years ago sometimes lasted decades, or even a century. Droughts of that magnitude have ended civilizations. See the Anasazi, wiped out in the Southwest about 800 years ago.

“Driest year since the 1840s” doesn’t sound good, but the reality is, indeed, probably worse. UC Berkeley paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Graham says old tree rings indicate the area hasn’t been so desiccated since 1580, 434 years ago. She points out that the past 150 years of modern development have been comparatively wetter years than some previous, longer, drier, and, arguably, “normal” periods, as noted above. Those long, dry periods could return.

An interesting characteristic of the drought is the proximate cause pointed out by meteorologists: a ridge of high pressure off the coast is “feeding off itself,” refusing to move or dissipate as it blocks wet weather from reaching land.  The timing is especially bad because California needs winter storms to replace its freshwater, in the form of rains and especially snow melt from the mountains. Sounds like an effect of climate change, something that’s easy to believe but hard to prove.

In addition to Herculean conservation efforts, what could be next for California if the drought persists? Greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area are already projected to run out of water by 2050. Perhaps the state will pursue expensive seawater desalination projects on a massive scale, follow China’s lead on sea ice desalination, or go after fresh and brackish water recently found to be in aquifers under oceans.

Read more:

UPDATE: California drought prompts first-ever “zero water allocation” – Los Angeles Times

Why California’s water woes could be just beginning – University of California, Berkeley

California drought: Scientists puzzled by persistence of weather-blocking “ridge” – Christian Science Monitor

The worst drought in the history of California is happening right now – Right Side News

California drought: Water officials look to rules of the ’70s – SFGate

Gov. Brown declares California drought emergencySan Jose Mercury News

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, North America, Sustainability, Water Shortage

Water Found in Stardust Could Mean a Universe Seeded With Life

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

Score one for those who “want to believe” in extraterrestrial life, a la FBI Agent Fox Mulder of TV classic “The X-Files.” A cosmic rain of interstellar dust could be seeding planets across the universe with the building blocks of life as we know it — water and carbon. For the first time, a study has found water inside actual stardust, in addition to organic elements like carbon, according to a report in New Scientist.

“The implications are potentially huge,” says Hope Ishii of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, one of the researchers behind the study, in a quote from the article. “It is a particularly thrilling possibility that this influx of dust on the surfaces of solar system bodies has acted as a continuous rainfall of little reaction vessels containing both the water and organics needed for the eventual origin of life.”

Ultra-high-resolution microscopy allowed researchers to detect tiny pockets of water trapped beneath the surface of dust particles. Lab experiments have suggested how the water gets there. The dust, oxygen-rich from silicates, collides in space with a solar wind made in part of hydrogen ions. In the collision, hydrogen and oxygen combine and make water. In theory, anywhere there is a star (e.g., the sun), this can happen.

Read more:

Water found in stardust suggests life is universalNew Scientist

How much of the human body is made up of stardust? – Physics Central

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Filed under Science, Space, Technology

Top 5 Non-Lethal Uses for Drones

Image: Flying Eye

Image: Flying Eye

Happiness is not a police state, and unmanned aerial vehicles aren’t just for the war machine anymore. Though many of us associate drones with bomb strikes and government surveillance, their civilian use is growing more widespread and attracting massive investment. It’s going to go far beyond recent headline grabbers (e.g., Domino’s pizza-delivery tests and CEO Jeff Bezos saying on “60 Minutes” that deliveries by drone will be off the ground in 2015, depending on FAA approval). Essentially, anything that calls for a bird’s-eye view, aerial photgraphy, or lightweight deliveries can benefit from drone service. In no particular order, here are five favorites, already underway:

Monitoring and protecting wildlife.  Some early indicators suggest drones are better at spotting wildlife than people in planes and helicopters are, while also reducing costs and risks to human life. Researchers have found success deploying drones to survey dugongs, a vegetarian marine mammal related to the manatee, in Shark Bay, on the western Australia coast. The U.S. Geological Survey uses drones to count sandhill crane populations. The devices are also used to track endangered Sumatran orangutans.

Delivering medicine. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to George Barbastathis and collaborators at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in the U.S. They’re working on unmanned aerial vehicles that health care workers can deploy via cell phones to swiftly deliver vaccines and the like.

3-D mapping for everyone. Using a lightweight drone and powerful new software, almost anyone will soon be able to create precise 3-D maps for any number of uses, such as crop management, facilities monitoring and disaster relief operations.  Watch Pix4D co-founder Olivier Kung’s TEDx talk on the subject.

Search-and-rescue. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported what they believed to be the first use of a drone to rescue an accident victim. After a late-night car accident in remote Saskatchewan in May 2013, an injured and disoriented man called police but couldn’t report his location. Worse, he wandered far from the crash site.  A helicopter search failed to find the man, even with night-vision gear, but an unmanned drone with an infrared camera did the job. Without it, he would not have survived the night.

Hurricane tracking. Improvements in drone technology have increased the aircraft’s range and flying time, making them invaluable for gathering weather data. An airplane can’t safely stay inside a hurricane for 30 hours, as some drones can.  NASA and Northrop Grumman have teamed up on a $30 million project to monitor storms as they evolve. A University of Florida project is looking at doing similar work with swarms of tiny drones.

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Environment, Industry, Natural Disasters, North America, Oceans, Research, Technology

WFES News: WorldBank Launches Initiative at Water and Energy Summits in Abu Dhabi

Image: World Bank Water

Image: World Bank Water

The World Bank has announced the launch of its “Thirsty Energy” initiative, aimed at helping governments tackle growing water-energy challenges, at the 7th annual World Future Energy Summit (WFES) and the 2nd annual International Water Summit (IWS). The two meetings are running concurrently, Jan. 20 – Jan. 22, at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre in the United Arab Emirates.

It takes a lot of water to generate power through various processes, and it takes a lot of power to extract, treat and deliver water. Yet, according to the World Bank, energy planning and development decisions are often made without regard to current and future water shortages. Its plan is to offer proactive, cross-sector advice on energy and water resource management planning, tailored according to a given country’s resources, modeling experience, and political and institutional realities.

Why go to all that trouble? Because near-future projections paint a disturbing picture. Today more than 780 million people don’t have enough access to potable drinking water, and about 1.3 billion lack electricity, according to estimates. In a world with a fixed and finite amount of freshwater but a surging population, global energy consumption is expected to swell 50% by 2035, while the energy sector’s use of water may increase by 85%. That means worsening water shortages, and, as noted in a previous post, climate change will make the situation even more dire in certain areas.

UPDATE: Thirsty energy: the conflict between demands for water and energyThe Guardian

More from WFES and IWS:

World Bank launches “Thirsty Energy” initiative – The World Bank / WFES

Will water contrain our energy future? (Thirsty Energy initiative, with extensive info graphics) – The World Bank

Four ways water shortages are harming energy production – The Water Blog (

Denmark and Abu Dhabi sign clean-energy deal – The National

Related posts:

On tap Monday: Annual UN Water conference in Spain (Jan. 12, 2014)

Study: Freshwater shortage will double climate change’s impact on agriculture (Dec. 17, 2013)

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Environment, Events, Industry, Middle East, Research, Sustainability, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage

China Plans to Desalinate Vast Amounts of Sea Ice



A Chinese company and a university research team said Tuesday they will begin desalinating sea ice on a large scale to make freshwater for drinking and use in agriculture and industry, the Xinhua news agency reports.

With technological development, the cost of desalination is falling, which makes this kind of industrial-strength effort more feasible than it used to be. It helps that sea ice has much less salt than seawater: 0.4 to .0.8% versus 2.8 to 3.1%, according to the researchers, who are from Beijing Normal University.

Using newly developed equipment, including machinery to break and gather ice, Beijing Huahaideyuan Technology Co. says it expects annual output of 1 billion cubic meters of freshwater at 0.1% salinity by 2023.

Read more:

China to industrialize sea ice desalination – Xinhua

Desalinating ice: an answer to China’s water woes? – Water World  

Study on sea-ice desalination technology –

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Filed under Asia, Desalination, Industry, Oceans, Technology, Water Resources

U.S. Shale Map: Could Be a Lot of Fracking Drilling in the Lower 48

Image: Duke University

Image: Duke University

See the website for the Duke University study on shale gas and fracking, Avner Vengosh research group, Duke Nicholas School of the Environment.


Duke study suggests cutting fracking waste’s radioactivity with acid drainage from mines – The Associated Press (Jan. 13, 2014)

Duke fracking tests reveal dangers driller’s study missed in Texas – Bloomberg (Jan.  10, 2014)

Drilling Down on Fracking: Latest News Plus Background (Jan. 6, 2014)

Fracking Across the Pond: In the UK (Jan 8, 2014)

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January 14, 2014 · 10:26 am