Category Archives: Desalination

California Dreaming: New Study Pushes Massive Water-Conservation Effort

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

Image courtesy of Calif. Dept. of Water Resources

If California really tried, it could keep a reserve amounting to as much water all of its cities use in a year — about 14 million acre feet. That’s according to a new analysis conducted by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pacific Institute. It’s the “trying” that could prove difficult for the drought-ridden state, because it would take an aggressive, across-the-board effort to save water, reuse water, and capture lost stormwater. Widespread use of available but underused efficiency methods would have to be implemented in the state’s massive agricultural industry, which uses about 80% of allocated water, and throughout urban areas, which use about 20%. That will take strong political will, a lot of cooperation, and financial investment. But it’s worth it, because it will make a huge difference, and you can’t just keep throwing new plans for billion-dollar desalination plants at the problem.

Read more:

Issue Brief: The Untapped Potential of California’s Water Supply: Efficiency, Reuse, and Stormwater – NRDC and Pacific Institute

California Water Security Attainable, Study SuggestsThe Desert Sun

Related posts:

Past, Present and Future: California’s Epic Struggle With Water

Serious Water Conservation Requires Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

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

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

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

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter


The world has a finite supply of accessible freshwater. By some estimates, less than 1% of the naturally occurring freshwater on earth is accessible to humans; the rest is locked up in ice or too deep and dispersed in the ground for us to get. The phrase “peak water” refers to the point at which we’re consuming available freshwater faster than it can be replenished by nature through the hydrologic water cycle to the usual sources, such as lakes, rivers, and shallow underground aquifers, many of which are already dangerously depleted.

Whether we’re nearing the point of peak water, already there, or well past it is a question under ongoing discussion. One point of confusion is that water volume and use vary widely by region. Some areas are nearing or past peak water, others aren’t. Another factor is that climate change is throwing the status quo of water abundance or scarcity by region into flux. Look at the 2013 research showing that heavy pollution from the U.S. and Europe from the 1960s into the 1980s effectively changed weather patterns, becoming a primary cause of Africa’s long, widespread, and deadly Sahel Drought. What will happen because of today’s pollution from the world’s most prolific sources? (e.g., China).

And those who don’t see water and climate change as parts of the same series of problems should note: “The hydrologic cycle is the climate cycle,” says hydro-climatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, in a video interview that lays out overlapping problems. Water, climate change, and energy production are all inextricably linked. In fact, links between water and energy make up the theme of this year’s World Water Day, coming up on March 22.

It’s worth noting that water scarcity is a crucial element of the resource crises cited in the upcoming NASA-funded study predicting a “perfect storm” within a few decades that could end global civilization. The study looked closely at the fall of previous complex societies, such as the Mayans and Romans, and found parallels with our unsustainable overuse of resources — particularly the massively unequal use by wealthy versus poor.

However close to “peak” we may be, no sustained sense of urgency over water scarcity is apparent in mainstream media. In part this is because water supplies are local or regional, not global, and in part it’s because these problems take a long time — and a much longer attention span than a 24-hour news cycle has — to address. So you see localized articles about regional droughts and potential conflicts over resources, though rarely anything that puts the worldwide water crisis in perspective and looks ahead to cross-cutting solutions (e.g., large-scale renewable-energy power production that requires much less water than nuclear or fossil-fuel-based power, combined with modern and far-reaching conservation measures addressing agricultural, industrial, and residential water use and re-use).

Compared to today’s world, our near-future planet will have double the human population, even more-severe climate change, and yet the same old freshwater, redistributed. Perhaps it’s too easy to push off the worry, as we think we’ll get serious about conservation before it’s too late. Or that governments and industry will join together to provide desalinated water wherever necessary — somehow without the troubling environmental costs of today’s practices — before vast human populations must migrate or die.  Or that those fresh and brackish aquifers recently discovered under the oceans will push the point-of-no-return a few decades further into the future. Well, someday, after the fights over the rights, maybe somebody will throw billions at drilling into those aquifers. Because someday they’ll have no choice. And then those reserves will be sucked dry, too.

You might say we have no choice other than to better manage our freshwater.

Read more:

UPDATE: CHARTS: How power generation threatens water supplies, and climate change threatens both – ClimateProgress

UPDATE: NASA-funded study: Industrial civilisation headed for “irreversible collapse”? Natural and social scientists develop new model of how “perfect storm” of crises could unravel global systemThe Guardian

Are we on the path to peak water? – Climate Central (with infographic)

Peak water is here – Daily Kos (links to video interview with Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute)

Peak water (background) – Wikipedia

Pollution in Northern Hemisphere helped cause 1980s African drought – Washington University

Related posts:

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Africa, Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, Europe, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Pollution, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

New Desalination Method Disinfects the Water, Too

Image: IDA

Image: IDA

New Desalination technique also cleans and disinfects water: Electrodialysis has the potential to desalinate seawater quickly and cheaply but does not remove other contaminants such as dirt and bacteria. Now chemical engineers have worked out how to do that too. – MIT Technology Review

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Filed under Desalination, Oceans, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage

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

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

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

To the Rescue in California? Solar-Powered Desalination

solar desal water fx

Image: WaterFX

When you hear about desalination, it’s usually about a large-scale effort to transform seawater to freshwater through the process of reverse osmosis. In other words, an industrial plant is built in a terribly dry place at considerable expense, and salt water is pumped in and forced through membranes to create much-less-salty water (to oversimplify). But there is another, completely different process that separates salt and other things from water using a “solar still.”

Solar desalination technology isn’t new, but a company called WaterFX* is trying to put it to a new use in water-challenged California, and, potentially, everywhere, according to an interesting article in Forbes (link below). The company’s effort is about selling its scalable Aqua 4 system to growers and water districts, who can use it to recapture, purify and reuse agricultural run-off (that is, the copious amount of water used for irrigation that picks up salts, fertilizer and other impurities that make it problematic to reuse without damaging crop yields). The company’s small-scale pilot project with California’s  Panoche Water District was able to produce nearly 500 gallons of clean water per hour, and the district plans to launch a larger project with the company, according to the article below.

Read more about how the sytem works in Peter Kelly-Detwiler’s* piece for Forbes.

Read more about WaterFX* at its website.

(*Note: Peter Kelly-Detwiler is a partner at NorthBridge Energy Partners, LLC. This post is not an endorsement of that organization or of WaterFX.)

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Desalination, Industry, North America, Technology, Water Resources, Water Shortage

And the International Desalination Association Award Goes to …

Image: IDA

Image: IDA

OK, it may not be as glamorous or as self-important as the Academy Awards, aka The Oscars, but the International Desalination Association (IDA) exists and it gives out awards. That’s two new things I learned today.

IDA is a non-profit international NGO* that strives to educate people about desalination and water reuse. Its 2013 Channabasappa Memorial Scholarship has been awarded to Leila Karimi, a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute for Energy and the Environment, Chemical Engineering Department, New Mexico State University. Her focus, according to the award announcement, is on “the selective removal of ions in an electrodialysis reversal process as one of the inland desalination technologies that is appropriate for brackish groundwater.” Good for her, especially because Australian researchers recently concluded  that there’s a whole lot more brackish, or somewhat salty, groundwater in the world than previously thought.

*(NGO, or non-governmental organization; the abbreviation is used more commonly than the spelled-out version in the development world, e.g., the world of the United Nations and various other regional and international aid organizations.)

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Filed under Awards and Honors, Desalination, Groundwater, NGOs, Oceans, Technology, Water Resources

Chile May Make Miners Use Desalinated Water

Chuquicamata_copper_mine_chile (1)

Chuquicamata copper mine, by Owen Cliffe

With communities in Chile’s Atacama Desert — one of the world’s driest — competing with copper mines for dwindling water supplies, some of the country’s lawmakers have submitted a bill that would force mining companies to use desalinated Pacific Ocean water, according to reports in Bloomberg and

A statement from Chile’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the National Congress, calls for mining companies that use 150 liters (40 gallons) of water per second to begin using desalinated water in order to preserve freshwater for other uses.  Some mining companies already use desalinated water, others don’t. There is no word yet on when the upper house, the Senate, will address the legislation.

One third of the world’s copper supplies comes from Chile, and one third of the Chilean government’s revenue comes from copper exports — making mining one of the country’s most important industries as well as one of its biggest users of water. According to a report in BNamericas, the industry’s need for water is expected to increase by 38 % by 2021.

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Filed under Desalination, Industry, Law, Oceans, South America, Water Shortage