Drought and decreased snowmelt has fueled historic water shortages across the Western United States for the last decade, and it’s no secret that California has been hit the hardest. From the beaches, to the Central Valley’s farms, to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, water shortage proves to be a serious problem across the Golden State. California’s water crisis is forcing state leaders to explore their options for providing drinking water to its ever-expanding communities, and desalination technology is an important part of that conversation.
What is the California water shortage?
California’s water shortage has been a product of 5 years of the worst drought in state history, with the harshest period of drought occurring from 2013-2014.
Due to the shortage, state crop yields are down, rural towns are running out of drinking water, and cities like San Francisco are bringing water in from farther and farther away. As a result, California’s farmers and municipalities are sucking the state’s only aquifers dry.
Experts suggest that it would take 12 trillion gallons of new water in the state’s snowpack, reservoirs, and groundwater to get California out of the drought—an estimate that would require 4 straight years of unlikely, above-average rain and snow. The harsh reality of the situation has pushed state and local politicians to pass several policies in an effort to conserve water, including California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions requiring municipalities slash water usage by 25 percent.
How did California find itself in a water crisis?
The American west has been experiencing water shortage for more than a decade, and climate change is to blame. Due to record-high temperatures and lack of winter storms, snowpack in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range is at a historic low—snowpack that has traditionally been the state’s main water source. Less snowmelt means a decrease in California’s surface water, which requires the state to drill for alternative water sources in underground aquifers. California has relied on aquifers for about 60 percent of its water since 2013. Unfortunately, doing so has dried them out.
Unsustainable farming practices have also been criticized as a driver of California’s water shortage. Agriculture is responsible for about 40 percent of California’s water usage. Along with a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, hay, meats, and dairy products, many California farmers grow water-intensive plants such as almonds and alfalfa. To make this possible, the government provides water subsidies for agriculture, which have the adverse effect of distorting water usage as farmers have an incentive to use more water than they might use without the subsidies.
False solutions to California’s water scarcity
Many have looked to the El Nino weather phenomenon to solve the state’s record water shortage with rains and storms in the last two years, only to find the precipitation providing temporary solace, as many of the rivers and aquifers still remain dry. Environmental advocates continue to push for policy solutions, such as cutting of water subsidies for the agricultural sector, requiring farmers to use more efficient irrigation technology, curbing residential use through rainwater capture and other creative water recycling efforts.
But even as Californian’s significantly increase the efficiency of their water usage, with climate change progressively reducing the availability of surface water, the state will be forced to answer the looming question of what to do when the aquifers run out. In this way, California’s water crisis no longer refers to drought. The state’s dry spell is now the new normal, making the new crisis the fact that California has not yet secured another viable source of drinking water. Desalination technology is the answer.
Is desalination a viable solution to California’s chronic drought?
First of all, California is already producing a notable amount of water treated with desalination to meet the state’s water needs. Most notable, the Claude Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant, located just north of San Diego, is the largest of its kind in North America. The plant is able to purify tens of millions of gallons of water each day, providing roughly 7 percent of San Diego County’s water needs. The Carlsbad plant even won an international award for technological and environmental achievement in 2016.
Given California’s geography, desalination just makes sense. The state’s western border is comprised of 840 miles of ocean coastline, meaning that California’s water shortage is exclusive to the availability of freshwater. Salt water, on the other hand, is an abundant resource to the state. With proper water treatment technology, California has permanent access to what is essentially the largest water reservoir in the world.
Additionally, desalination is a safe and cost-effective alternative to sucking California’s underground aquifers dry. This is especially true in a state like California where oil and gas companies can legally dump toxic waste directly into underground aquifers. Thanks to the state’s aquifer exemption policies, select aquifers or portions of aquifers are removed from protection as a drinking water source under the Safe Drinking Water Act, putting the state’s aquifers at risk of contamination by improperly maintained wastewater injection wells.
Further, in coastal cities or water-scarce regions, the cost of desalination is often close to the price of treated polluted waters or pumping in water from elsewhere. Right now, 85 percent of the California’s water comes from hundreds of miles away—a practice that is not sustainable in the long run.
That said, desalination is without a doubt, the future of drought relief in California. Some estimates suggest that desalination could provide 10 to 20 percent of the state’s municipal and industrial demand. Desalination in California could vary from larger, established plants that provide municipal water via underground pipelines, to local or even individual water filtration systems. Both are affordable, and the flexibility of water treatment technology allows municipalities, businesses, farmers, and other customers to invest in desalination systems that meet their individualized needs.
While California continues to absorb the impacts of a changing climate and water scarcity, desalination remains a vast and untapped resource to the state. Investing in good desalination technology can bring about the turning point California needs to address its water shortages. So unless Californians can figure out how to make it rain, desalination technology remains a solid, drought-proof solution to water scarcity in the Golden State.
If your organization or municipality is ready for an industrial desalination system, contact ISI Water today.