The Future of California’s Water System

They used to call California ocean desalination a disaster. But water crisis brings new look at desalination’s past

The ocean is being desalinated by the thousands, much of it in California.

But before it was called a “disaster,” California was called the nation’s largest energy consumer – with its energy-intensive agriculture, mining, and fishing industries.

And California’s state water plan is based on the same old, failed approach:

A reliance on costly desalination as a quick and dirty solution to its water crisis.

California is now considering new strategies that are more sustainable and economically viable.

While the state of California is still in the process of crafting the most realistic water system for the state’s future, there are several things to know about water desalination.

The big picture

Desalination – “the process of separating water molecules from salt by using a reverse osmosis membrane – is the world’s most widely used water-purification technology. It uses a high-grade, membrane-based technology which makes desalination more efficient and less costly than fresh water sources,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Desalting the ocean, which costs roughly $1 billion per year in California, is no small task.)

The water that comes out of a desalination plant is not only cleaner than its source, but also cleaner than drinking water, according to the U.S. EPA.

The cost of water desalination is also steadily declining. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the cost of desalination has decreased by more than two-thirds since 1992. The price of water is expected to drop to about $100 per acre foot in 2015 from $2,750 per acre foot in 2000.

Desalting “is an extraordinary process,” according to Tom Yulsman, senior water resources engineer with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “All of the water that is desalinated is used – not just the water that gets removed – but the water that remains in the system is all usable water.”

One of the greatest successes of the ocean desalination process – and the main reason why it is still in use today – is that it has no impact on the marine ecosystem.

“We can’t get rid of

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