Pictured: Desalination plant in Hamburg port
By David E. Hubler
The historic heatwave that has spread across much of the Pacific Northwest is stoking wildfires and creating drought conditions from southern California to the U.S.-Canada border. Some scientists fear that the worst fire season on record last year will be surpassed this year.
Drought has scorched western North America “for the better part of two decades, withering crops, draining rivers and fueling fires,” Brian Handwerk wrote in Smithsonian magazine last year. “Scientists now warn that this trend could be just the beginning of an extended megadrought that ranks among the very worst of the past 1,200 years and would be unlike anything known in recorded history.”
Each Summer Wildfires in the Western United States Grow More Widespread and Deadly
Indeed, each summer wildfires in the western United States grow more widespread and deadly. Residents often wonder whether there is enough water available to fight these recurring infernos, to say nothing of the availability of water for the needs of humans, crops, fish and animals.
At American Public University’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math students in the Environmental Science and Fish and Wildlife bachelor of science degree program share a passion for environmental stewardship and address predominant global issues such as pollution, hazardous materials, natural resources, and wildlife management.
The faculty is comprised of scholar-practitioners, many of whom are field experts and hold leadership positions at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Bureau of Land Management, the Nature Conservancy, and other key environmental organizations. All of them are well aware of the Western states’ water issues.
Four years ago, then Gov. Jerry Brown announced the end of California’s historically severe drought by lifting various emergencies, Steven Greenhut wrote in the American Spectator this past April. “This drought emergency is over, but the next drought could be around the corner,” the governor intoned, adding that “Conservation must remain a way of life.”
99% of California Faces Abnormally Dry Conditions with 99% in actual Drought
Greenhut, the author of Pacific Research Institute’s “Winning the Water Wars,” said Brown was right about the next drought “now that 99 percent of our state is facing abnormally dry conditions, with more than two-thirds of it in an actual drought condition.”
According to NewSecurityBeat, after a prolonged drought between 2011 and 2015, California’s investment in desalination solutions to supply fresh water to the state’s dry south grew exponentially.
Greenhut noted that Brown’s successor, Gov. Gavin Newsom, supports a proposed desalination facility along the Orange County coast. But “state-imposed roadblocks have delayed the project for years, even though a similar facility in Carlsbad can meet 9 percent of San Diego’s water needs. Projects such as these can make a real dent in our [need for] water supplies.”
California has 11 municipal seawater desalination plants, with 10 more proposed. Southern California-based Poseidon Water LLC reports that its Carlsbad desalination facility, the largest in North America, has the capacity to produce 54 million gallons of water a day. That, combined with a new 50-million gallons a day facility nearing completion at Huntington Beach, “could ensure water security in Southern California.”
Desalination by Osmotic Pressure Creates Fresh Water
Desalination by reverse osmotic pressure is one of the more favored ways of turning 100 million gallons of seawater into 50 million gallons of freshwater each day, according to the Yale School of the Environment’s YaleEnvironment360.
Under natural conditions, osmotic pressure drives water with lower concentrations of dissolved salt through a separation membrane toward the water with a higher concentration of salt. In the reverse osmosis (RO) process, pressure is applied to overcome this natural pressure and reverse the movement of water by driving it through RO membranes.
The RO process removes over 99% of the salt and other minerals, creating freshwater from roughly half of the intake volume. The remaining seawater concentrate is returned to the ocean.
The Colorado River Supplies Southern California with More than Half its Water Needs
Climate change is a very real phenomenon for water managers throughout the Southwest and elsewhere, the Yale environmental report says. Desalination plants like these are expected to offset the diminishing annual snowfall in the Rocky Mountains that keeps the Colorado River supplying Southern California with more than half its water needs.
Nevertheless, “climate change is a very real phenomenon for water managers throughout the Southwest and elsewhere. According to some researchers climate change “may be part of a permanent aridification of the West.”