The Southwest is running out of fresh water. Could the ocean offer a cure? (2023)

It's a perfect day in Southern California. The sun shines on this Carlsbad beach, where volleyball players hit the sand and surfers ride the waves. Just a few steps from here, the salty water that washes the shore is being transformed.

This beach is a neighbor of the largest desalination plant in the western hemisphere. The Carlsbad Desalination Plant uses a complex network of pipes, tanks and specialized filters to remove salt and impurities from ocean water, making it part of San Diego County's fresh water supply.

Water resource managers are feeling the effects of an imbalance between supply and demand along the Colorado River. Fresh waterreserves are decliningwhile climate change squeezes the river that supplies water to 40 million people and farmland in seven states. Some have proposed desalination technology as a way to increase that supply, relieving pressure on a river that supplies a growing population from Wyoming to Mexico. Experts say this could be part of the solution, but it probably won't do much to affect the region's water crisis.

At the Carlsbad factory, seawater was poured into a cup from a freshwater faucet. Michelle Peters, technical and compliance manager for plant operator Poseidon Water, picked it up and took a sip.

"At 10 a.m., the morning surfers were swimming here at the ocean's edge," he said. "Now it is quality drinking water, ready for consumption."

On an early afternoon tour of the facility, Peters walked through rows of white pipes on his way to the "reverse osmosis gallery." Here, tall stacks of blue pipes and tubes fill a warehouse-like room, and the water roars through them with a roar.

The Southwest is running out of fresh water. Could the ocean offer a cure? (1)

Alex Hager



"This is where the magic happens," Peters said. "That's really what makes Desal, Desal. It's the heart of the site."

These containers enter water loaded with salt, bacteria and other impurities. It is forced through membranes the width of a human hair, passing tens of thousands of times before emerging on the other side almost ready to drink.

Where else could it work?

It's an impressive and enticing proposition for those managing the current water scarcity crisis in the Colorado River Basin. The workhorse river is overallocated and still shrinking. This process would add new fresh water, seemingly created out of thin air.

Policymakers wonder if similar plants could offer some relief to parts of the basin most in need of freshwater supplies. Desalinated ocean water already enters the basin through a handful of California, and some have proposed increasing the scale of desalination in the region.

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Perhaps the most prominent of these is Arizona Governor Doug Ducey's ambitious proposal tosettlement proposalwith Mexico, in which the state would finance an ocean desalination plant in the Gulf of California, allowing Mexico to use newly desalinated water in exchange for Mexico's share of the Colorado River.

The plan is expensive and unprecedented, but it has added a degree of legitimacy to the idea that ocean desalination could help parts of the Colorado River basin that are far from the coast. Policy analysts say it's not the best way to increase Arizona's supply, but it deserves more investigation.

"People should understand that it's probably the most expensive water supply that would be available as one of the many solutions to the scarcity problems of the Colorado River," said Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at State University. from Arizona.

Porter said desalinated water is likely too expensive for the agricultural sector, the biggest consumer of river water.

"It probably is, and someday will be, a solution for municipal water users," he said.

"And that's when it becomes a solution, when you've already taken advantage of cheaper water supplies and cheaper opportunities to expand current supplies," Porter said.

The Southwest is running out of fresh water. Could the ocean offer a cure? (2)

Alex Hager



The Arizona project would come at a high price. a 2020binational studyof potential desalination deals between Arizona and Mexico showed construction costs in the billions and annual operating costs in the tens of millions.

A large part of the operating costs would come from the high cost of moving water long distances. The proposed Arizona project would pump water nearly 300 miles north to the Morelos Dam near the US border, increasing overall project costs and ultimately making drinking water more expensive for the users.

That study said desalinated water could cost about $2,000 per acre-foot, about ten times more expensive than the current cost of Colorado River water supplied by the Central Arizona Project, a canal that carries water along 300 miles of desert An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to the height of one foot. One acre foot usually provides enough water for one or two families for a year.

Due to the high costs associated with transporting water, most experts say adding desalinated water to the water supply only makes sense when implemented near the coast, such as in Carlsbad.

Even so, the expensive process produces relatively little potable water. The desalination plant in Carlsbad, which is the largest on the continent, provides only about 10% of San Diego County's water supply.

(Video) Can Sea Water Desalination Save The World?

"If they get desperate enough, desalination could work"

Experts agree that most water-hungry cities in the Southwest should try to find potable water elsewhere before resorting to desalination, listing a myriad of cheaper and less complicated ways to boost supplies. fresh water

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis, studies the economics of water supply. He said cities should start paying farmers and ranchers for their water.

"If they get desperate enough, desalination could work," he said. "It will be much cheaper for Las Vegas, Phoenix or other cities to buy farmland and fallow this lower value economic activity to support their higher value economic activity."

This practice, often calledbuy and dry”, is already used in some parts of the basin, but Lund sees room for expansion. Agriculture uses about 70-80% of the water in the Colorado River Basin. For a long time, politicians resisted reducing that number.

But the severity of the drought and the need for additional supplies to keep taps running in cities have forced difficult conversations that suggest municipal users are increasingly likely to invest in temporary or permanent water purchases.agricultural water🇧🇷 Farmer groups fear that water coming out of the ground will harm rural economies and ecosystems.

Lund listed other alternatives to desalination that could be employed before cities switched to extracting seawater: xeriscape or fallow grass, more rainwater harvesting and more wastewater reuse.

Cutting the watering of the lawn hasalready helpedmany cities, which effectively conserved enough to extend a finite supply of water through decades of population growth. Wastewater recycling programs, which essentially purify wastewater and turn it into drinking water, are gaining ground in some parts of the basin, heralded as an expensive but necessary means of preventing freshwater from leaving the system.

Lund said all of these programs should be used before desalination of ocean water.

"It is highly unlikely that water will become so scarce that cities will pay for desalination," he said. “Unless there are some policies in place, which they would probably resist, that prohibit the fallowing of farmland to provide replacement water.”

lessons from abroad

(Video) Is Desalination the Solution to California's Water Crisis?

Other countries with limited water supplies have turned to desalination with varying degrees of success. Israel is often heralded as a world leader in turning ocean water into fresh water. About 80% of the country's domestic watercomes from desalination.

Sharon Megdal, director of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center, cautions against the idea that success in Israel would translate to the western United States.

“Israel is about the size of the state of New Jersey in terms of square miles,” he said. "The population is about 10 million people. So just think at scale and your water use per capita is much less than our water use."

Megdal said differences in water legislation and governance also give Israel an easier path to success with desalination, and its proximity to the ocean reduces the cost.

The Southwest is running out of fresh water. Could the ocean offer a cure? (4)

Alex Hager



Australia has also experimented with desalination, and Lund said the country's costly mistakes should be seen as a wake-up call for the Colorado River Basin. In the early 2000s, Australia was hit by the "millennium drought", which disrupted agricultural and municipal water supplies, bringing agriculture to a standstill in some areas and drastically reducing city water supplies.

“They thought maybe it was another permanent change in climate,” Lund said, “so they built about six coastal desalination plants.

While water has returned to many parts of Australia that have suffered from drought, climate scientists say the Colorado River Basin isunlikely to seeany substantial recovery from its drought.

Warmer temperatures accelerated by climate changedry solosmiearly thawthat will keep the Colorado River Basin dry in the future.

Wetter weather patterns may not be the reason desalination plants would be built but not used, but Lund says they may not be necessary if large amounts of water are to be reallocated from agriculture, which wasn't an option. in Australia.

"Probably the worst time to build a desalination plant is during a drought," said Sarah Porter. "It's like shopping when you're hungry. 'I never eat these things. Why did I buy this?'"

still worth exploring

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Despite the costs and challenges of expanding desalination in the US, experts say the technology is at least worth taking a closer look at.

"Yes, desalinated seawater is expensive," said Sharon Megdal. "But we have to recognize that water is a scarce commodity. Water is a valuable commodity. And seawater desalination tends to be a drought-proof technology."

Megdal said further study makes sense because it often takes decades to get large infrastructure up and running. If the Colorado River Basin decides it wants desalination in a few years, the wait will be shorter if lawmakers get the ball rolling today.

“When we look at the whole mix and the whole portfolio, I think desalinated seawater has a role to play,” he said. "The fact is that it will take time for projects to be authorized and built. So you have to think about the future."

The Southwest is running out of fresh water. Could the ocean offer a cure? (5)

Alex Hager



Even a desalination plant that has gone through decades of planning and licensing can encounter political opposition down the road. A controversial proposed facility in Huntington Beach, California,It was rejectedby the state coastal commission after two decades of debate.

The $1.4 billion proposal had the backing of California Gov. Gavin Newsom but drew the ire of environmental groups. A study of the facility's impacts found that it would kill marine life through its intakes and the discharge of a high-salinity brine byproduct. The study also cited risks to the plant's structural integrity, saying rising sea levels or earthquakes pose a threat of damage.

Poseidon Water, which also manages the Carlsbad facility, reportedly operated the plant.

In Carlsbad, users of this water say it is a valuable tool in their toolbox. San Diego County gets about two-thirds of its water from the Colorado River. Jeremy Crutchfield, water resources manager for the San Diego County Water Authority, says desalinated water gives the area valuable flexibility, and that flexibility is worth a five-dollar monthly increase in each household's water bill.

"It really goes back to reliability," he said. "That's what this brings to our water supply portfolio. When you look at an investment portfolio, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. You want to diversify and have different areas where you can generate income, or in this case, bring Water".

This story is part of ongoing coverage of Water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.


Can desalination solve the water crisis? ›

“While desalination on its own cannot solve the global water crisis, it is proving to be one of the most effective ways of taming water loss and boosting supplies with the evolution of technologies involved in water recycling reaching millions who would otherwise struggle with access to clean and affordable water,” ...

Can desalination of ocean water solve fresh water availability problems? ›

Only 0.7% of Earth's water is readily accessible as freshwater and 96.5% of it is saltwater. Through the process of desalination, scientists can turn saltwater into safe, drinking water. This process is either thermal-based (solar desalination) or membrane-based (reverse osmosis).

Why can't we use ocean water for drought? ›

Why can't we take some of that big, blue body of water and move it into the increasingly parched territory that borders it? The short answer, of course, is that there's salt in the ocean, which isn't good for people, plants and many other living creatures.

What could the town do to solve the problem of running out of fresh water? ›

Dam a river and create a reservoir to store water. Dig more wells to tap groundwater. Build more water towers to store water. Build a new wastewater-treatment plant to recycle wastewater.

Can you drink ocean water if you boil it? ›

You can't make seawater drinkable simply by boiling it. You need the water vapor to evaporate off, leaving the salts and other nasties behind. It's a simple enough process and one that can be performed easily with little or no equipment.

Can ocean water be made drinkable? ›

Humans cannot drink saline water, but, saline water can be made into freshwater, for which there are many uses. The process is called "desalination", and it is being used more and more around the world to provide people with needed freshwater.

Why doesn't California desalinate water? ›

There's the cost of building the facility, then there are the ongoing operational costs. The Pacific Institute's research shows that seawater desalination costs nearly four times more than water importation, and five times as much as capturing and processing rainwater.

What are 2 problems with desalination? ›

Desalination has the potential to increase fossil fuel dependence, increase greenhouse gas emissions, and exacerbate climate change if renewable energy sources are not used for freshwater production.

Can desalination be environmentally friendly? ›

Desalination is key to providing fresh water to millions of people around the world. Yet, it can harm marine wildlife, takes a lot of energy, and it's often not sustainable.

Is there a machine that turns saltwater into freshwater? ›

MIT researchers have created a portable desalination unit that can automatically remove particles and salts simultaneously to generate drinking water.

Is desalination the future? ›

Most of these experts say that desalination is the only currently available technology capable of countering such a crisis, but it undoubtedly comes with downsides. Apart from concerns for the environment and marine life, there are issues with regard to cost and efficiency – but there is hope on the horizon.

What does Israel do with the salt from desalination? ›

The desalination plants aren't generating salt per se, points out IDE Technologies, Israel's biggest desalination company. They are redistributing the salt: They take in seawater (or other) and produce distilled water and concentrated brine.

What are solutions of water? ›

A solution is a homogenous (uniform throughout) mixture, on a molecular level, of two or more substances. A solution of water mean water is a solvent in this case and it is known as aquous solution. For example, in a solution of salt and water, water is the solvent and salt is the solute.

What is causing water crisis? ›

Climate change is altering patterns of weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others. At the current consumption rate, this situation will only get worse. By 2025, two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages.

Can you drink rain water? ›

Germs and other contaminants are found in rainwater.

While useful for many things, rainwater is not as pure as you might think, so you cannot assume it is safe to drink.

Why don t they use sea water to put out forest fires? ›

Explanation: Yes, salt water can be used to put out wildfires. However, salt water can harm plant life: some species are sensitive to salinity levels. Thus, using salt water may not be a wise first choice in firefighting methods in certain environments.

Can LifeStraw filter ocean water? ›

Because pool water may have an abundance of salt and chemicals beyond chlorine, we do not recommend filtering pool water with your LifeStraw. LifeStraw products also do not work in saltwater or brackish water.

What country uses desalination the most? ›

The Hadera seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plant in Israel is the largest seawater desalination plant in the world.

How do you drink ocean water if stranded? ›

The most efficient way to desalinate salt water is by using a method called distillation. This is where you boil the water and then collect the condensation. The condensation will provide fresh saltless water for you to drink.

Why is only 1% of Earth's total water supply usable for us? ›

Over 97 percent of the earth's water is found in the oceans as salt water. Two percent of the earth's water is stored as fresh water in glaciers, ice caps, and snowy mountain ranges. That leaves only one percent of the earth's water available to us for our daily water supply needs.

How much does it cost to desalinate 1 gallon of water? ›

Ten years ago, desalinated water cost more than $9 per 1000 gallons, but today, the range is $2 to $5 per 1000 gallons for commercial and industrial reverse osmosis desalination systems.

Where does Dubai get their water? ›

The city relies primarily on desalinated seawater for the water supply. There are two central desalination plants in Dubai — one in Jebel Ali and the other in Al Kaffah. These two plants account for 80 percent of the city's water needs. Dubai has turned into a global business hub in the past century.

Do desalination plants hurt the ocean? ›

Desalination is the process of removing salts from water and a by-product of the process is toxic brine which can degrade coastal and marine ecosystems unless treated.

Why don t more countries use desalination? ›

So is cost the reason why desalination isn't used? Yup. The energy requirements are so high that the cost for a lot of countries is too much. That's why it's mainly used in regions lacking freshwater, ships, and military vessels.

What are the alternatives to desalination? ›

Other desalination alternatives using MOFs include membrane distillation, capacitive deionisation, forward osmosis, and photocatalytic purification.

What are the 3 pros to desalination? ›

Benefits of Seawater Desalination:

Provides people with potable water (clean & fresh drinking water). Provides water to the agricultural industry. Water quality is safe (not dangerous or hazardous to any living thing).

How do we solve the problem of water shortages in the Middle East? ›

To overcome water scarcity and meet increasing demand, MENA countries have long been producing their own water. A popular method is to separate salt from seawater in a process called desalination. Approximately 75% of worldwide desalinated water is produced in MENA, at plants like this one in Tel Aviv, Israel.

How can we solve the water crisis in California? ›

Recycle more water

That is more than double the amount recycled in 2021. Turning sewage into water is the Golden State equivalent of turning water into wine, and California has been doing it for decades. Californians used about 732,000 acre feet of recycled water in 2021.

What is a solution to the water shortage crisis in China? ›

The Solutions to the China Water Shortage Crisis

The East and Middle routes- each taking 10 years to build- have been in service since 2013 and 2014 respectively and are capable of transferring 20.9 billion cubic meters of water each year. The West Route is expected to be completed by 2050.

Will desalination ever be cheap? ›

Producing clean water at a lower cost could be on the horizon after researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Penn State solved a complex problem that had baffled scientists for decades.

Why people don t use desalination process? ›

Salt dissolves very easily in water, forming strong chemical bonds, and those bonds are difficult to break. Energy and the technology to desalinate water are both expensive, and this means that desalinating water can be pretty costly.

Can fresh water be man made? ›

Theoretically, this is possible, but it would be an extremely dangerous process, too. To create water, oxygen and hydrogen atoms must be present. Mixing them together doesn't help; you're still left with just separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Is there a machine that creates water? ›

An atmospheric water generator (AWG), also known as a hydropanel, is a device that extracts water from humid ambient air, producing potable water.

Is desalination expensive? ›

Inland brackish water and wastewater desalination plants are costly to build and to operate because we don't have easy disposal options for the concentrate stream,” said Meagan Mauter , associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

Why is desalination not used in the US? ›

Desalinated water is currently more expensive than other sources, and the area has a local groundwater basin that meets 75% of its water demand and is in the process of being expanded. California has spent most of the last 15 years in drought conditions.

How does Saudi Arabia get water? ›

This is done through desalination, a process that produces potable water from brackish seawater. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest producer of desalinated water. The Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC) operates 27 desalination stations that produce more than three million cubic meters a day of potable water.

Can desalination solve water shortage? ›

“While desalination on its own cannot solve the global water crisis, it is proving to be one of the most effective ways of taming water loss and boosting supplies with the evolution of technologies involved in water recycling reaching millions who would otherwise struggle with access to clean and affordable water,” ...

What is the biggest problem with desalination? ›

Energy costs aside, one of the biggest concerns regarding desalination in the United States is brine waste. After ocean and brackish waters are stripped of salt and minerals to produce freshwater, the resulting byproduct contains very high salinity levels.

What is Israel's largest source of freshwater? ›

The Western Aquifer, in Israel called the Yarkon-Taninim Aquifer, is the largest one, with an annual safe yield of 362 million cubic metres (mcm), based on average annual estimate, (of which 40 mcm are brackish).

Where does salt go after desalination? ›

But desalination plants are energy intensive and create a potentially environment-harming waste called brine (made up of concentrated salt and chemical residues), which is dumped into the ocean, injected underground or spread on land.

What do you think can be done to improve water supply? ›

Implement rainwater harvesting systems to collect and store rainwater for drinking or recharging underground aquifers. Build wells to extract groundwater from underground aquifers. Provide home water-treatment capability through the use of filters, solar disinfection, or flocculants, to make drinking water safe.

What government is taking steps to save water? ›

In order to boost water conservation and rain water harvesting in the country, Ministry of Jal Shakti has taken up a nationwide campaign “Jal Shakti Abhiyan - Catch the Rain” (JSA:CTR) with the theme “Catch the rain, where it falls, when it falls” for creating appropriate rainwater harvesting structures in urban and ...

What year will California run out of water? ›

Over 90% of the Western US is currently experiencing different severities of drought.

Why doesn't California use desalination for water? ›

Desalinated water is currently more expensive than other sources, and the area has a local groundwater basin that meets 75% of its water demand and is in the process of being expanded.

Does California have a plan for water? ›

The California Water Plan (CWP), updated every five years, is the State's strategic plan for sustainably and equitably managing and developing water resources for current and future generations.

How is Israel trying to solve its water problems? ›

Israel has plenty of expertise in desalination. As a water-insecure nation, it has for more than two decades been taking seawater from the Mediterranean and treating it through a process called reverse osmosis, essentially taking the salt out of the water to make it drinkable.

How can we prevent water wars? ›

One set of approaches consists of measures to increase the availability of water, including (1) reducing use of water, such as by decreasing wasteful uses and increasing efficient uses; (2) increasing availability of clean water, such as by reducing industrial pollution and sewage contamination of water, improving ...

How Israel saved its water crisis? ›

In 1999, the Israeli government initiated a long-term, large-scale seawater reverse osmosis desalination program that culminated in the establishment of five operational desalination facilities: the Ashkelon Plant (2005) capable of producing 118–120 MCM of potable water per year; Palmachim (2007), which now produces ...

How much would it cost to give everyone clean water? ›

Bringing water and sanitation to all would cost $10 billion a year, Mr.

Who is trying to stop water pollution? ›

The US Water Alliance is dedicated to building a sustainable water future for all. We accelerate the adoption of One Water strategies—innovative, inclusive, and integrated approaches to water stewardship.


1. Who's really using up the water in the American West?
2. Why Aren't Desalination Plants EVERYWHERE?
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3. Why California Chooses Aggressive Conservation Over More Water Supply | Brett Barbre
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4. Podcast: What If The Southwest United States Runs Out Of Water? (Part 2)
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5. Can We Solve Our Planets Water Crisis? | Avoiding Apocalypse | Earth Stories
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