California has turned to an alternative method to combat the severe drought that has been going on for over four years. A huge desalination plant, in which salt is removed from seawater to make it drinkable, is in the last stages of construction in Carlsbad, California. This plant will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere and will provide 50 million gallons of water per day to people in San Diego County.
This is not the first desalination plant in California. However, this process has largely been avoided under the belief that it is too expensive and harmful to the environment. In the past 25 years, not much has changed in terms of expense, other than improvement on electricity use, but the water shortages have people craving action.
It is important to understand that desalination is not a solution. It is an immediate remedy that will create more problems for future generations to solve due to the huge risks it poses to the environment. The process uses huge amounts of electricity which increases carbon dioxide emissions that have been proven to further strain water supplies.
Another major environmental concern of desalination is its effect on sea life. During the intake of saltwater into the system, billions of fish eggs and larva are destroyed. This poses a threat to entire food chains revolving around these species. Also, the salt removal process does not create salable salt. The excess material is in a brine that is 1.5 times more concentrated than regular seawater, whereas commercial salt would have to be 10 times more concentrated than seawater. Companies claim it is not in their economic interest to produce the salable salt. Instead, desalination companies return this brine back to the ocean which raises salinity levels. This brine is also a few degrees Celsius warmer than seawater. This will affect the temperature of the area of the ocean where the brine is returned. The fact that warm water evaporates quicker than cool water will exacerbate the salinity issue. These effects, especially in large amounts like that will occur with the plant in Carlsbad, threaten the sensitive ocean ecosystems.
Even with this incentive against the use of desalination, it is impossible to deny the necessity of drinkable water in our country’s most populous state. A lot of water in southern California is currently being imported from the northern regions of the state or from the Colorado River. These practices obviously affect the environment as well, but the ocean ecosystem is imperative to land environments. According to the National Geographic, half of the world’s oxygen is produced through the photosynthesis of phytoplankton. The ocean is so vast that the effects of changing salinity and temperature levels is unknown. With the knowledge of desalination’s effect on the ocean, it would be beneficial to maintain the current methods of accessing water in southern California instead of utilizing desalination.
It is necessary to change society’s valuation of water in our environment. Fresh water is not inexhaustible, yet wasting water is accepted and considered almost necessary to modern life. There are obvious cutbacks that need to be made. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, roughly half of urban water use is for residential and commercial landscaping. Luxuries like watering lawns and decorative fountains are blatantly ignoring the crisis at hand and cannot continue. Businesses like golf courses and water parks should be required to make active efforts to cut their water waste. Agriculture accounts for 40 percent of California’s water, but is only three percent of their economy. Advances in irrigation need to be applied to farms to limit inefficiencies of run off and evaporation. California Governor Jerry Brown recently issued an executive order mandating a 25 percent reduction in water usage. This cutback displays a step in the right direction, but continuous efforts need to be made.
The construction of the desalination plant in Carlsbad is harming the environment in order to accommodate wasteful habits. Efficient management of fresh water is the proper solution to the water shortage in California. Until desalination plants are designed to have a less harmful effect on the environment, there should be strict regulations on the matter of their construction.