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The “tricky balance” of tackling water scarcity and carbon emissions

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Smoke stacks emit pollution behind a body of water during sunset.

CALIPATRIA, CA - DECEMBER 28: A geothermal plant is seen near the Salton Sea on December 28, 2018 near Calipatria, California, United States. Scientists believe that the southern portion of the San Andreas Fault will inevitably give birth to a massive earthquake, bigger than any that has occurred in Southern California in modern history. On top of the fault lies a rift lake, the Salton Sea, which is the latest in a series of great lakes to form then dry up with the changing course of the Colorado River throughout geologic history. The changing weight of these lakes is thought to have had a regulating effect by triggering periodic approximately magnitude 7 earthquakes to relieve built up tectonic pressures. That process stalled when the Colorado River was tamed by technology in the early 1900's and pressure is building. The current Salton Sea, California's biggest lake, formed when an irrigation engineering project accident in 1905 allowed the Colorado River to flood into the Salton Sink and form the body of water that would become more visited than Yosemite Valley in the mid- 20th Century. It also became one of the most important stops for migrating birds in the North America. Now the increasingly salty water has killed most of the fish that millions of birds, such as white pelicans and eared grebes that make up 80 to 95 percent of the Western populations have relied on. The sea has spiraled into ecological collapse and is drying up after decades of debate and insufficient action have failed to stop it. The demise of the lake is now accelerating since some water that would normally flow into the sea has been sold to coastal cities. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images for Lumix) David McNew/Getty Images for Lumix

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body responsible for researching the climate crisis, issued a report this week saying the accumulating consequences of the climate crisis are outpacing our ability to adapt to them.

One of the issues is water scarcity, and one of the strategies the IPCC recommends to address it is desalination — turning salty ocean water into something drinkable. Several countries already rely on desalination plants, but efforts to build more in the U.S. are controversial.  

It’s a topic for Quality Assurance, where we take a second look at a big tech story. Matt Vasilogambros is a staff writer for Stateline. He reported on desalination plants in California.

Matt Vasilogambros: These plants will pump in water from the ocean, and as it comes in, they have to go through quite an energy-intensive process of separating the fresh water from the ocean water. And so then you get fresh drinking water, and then half is this concentrated, salty substance called brine. And that salty substance does have to be emitted back into the ocean. There are some concerns among environmentalists that concentrated, salty substance can create unoxygenated dead zones, which can be quite harmful to marine life. But, you know, for many coastal communities, areas that don’t have ready access to fresh water, this can be, you know, quite an essential source of fresh drinking water for a region.

Kimberly Adams: Where is this technology deployed now globally and here in the U.S.?

Matt Vasilogambros (Courtesy The Pew Charitable Trusts)

Vasilogambros: One hundred twenty countries worldwide have about 21,000 desalination facilities. And these are being used primarily in arid countries like Israel or Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. It is a lot less common here in the United States. Now, there are some facilities. There is one in San Diego producing something like 50 million gallons per day, but that is one of just a handful in California. Officials here are debating whether or not to add more facilities, but as we found out, it is politically fraught.

Adams: Tell me about those political debates. Who’s on what side?

Vasilogambros: In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has supported expanding these projects, but it’s received quite a lot of opposition from environmental groups who say that the carbon that it takes to produce fresh water is just not worth it and that there are other ways you can conserve. You can even desalinate brackish water, that kind of salty water that happens when a river meets an ocean.

Adams: How cost-effective is desalinated water?

Vasilogambros: It raises, on average, rates — at least in Southern California — by $5 a billing cycle. And there are some economic challenges to that for many of these communities. In terms of energy efficiency, it takes a lot. You have to do this what they call a reverse-osmosis process twice to make sure that the water is actually drinkable. And you know, that takes a lot of carbon to produce. The company that is in charge of the Southern California desalination plants has promised to use more green energy, and local politicians who support desalination plants say, “Yes, it is way more energy intensive than almost any other process to purify water, but we are saving carbon since we don’t have to transport that water from elsewhere in the state.”

Adams: This recent IPCC report basically says climate change is outpacing our ability to adapt to it. What role might desalination efforts play in trying to catch up?

Vasilogambros: Well, in that IPCC report, they say that desalination is essential for a lot of arid parts of our world. But, you know, they also say what a lot of scientists have said. They expect that, with the increased use of desalination across the world, that emissions will rise because of that. And so, you know, it’s a tricky balance between trying to find good sources of fresh water as the world gets hotter, as we face this crisis, while also not trying to contribute to carbon emissions and the reason why we’re in this crisis in the first place.

Related links: More insight from Kimberly Adams

If you’d like, feel free to take a peek at the 3,000-plus-page IPCC report. Or for some lighter reading, try the 96-page summary.

You can also check out Vasilogambros’ reporting for Stateline, which focuses on a proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, California.

And if you’re a little thirsty for more information about recycling water, you can take a peek at some reporting I did for the show last summer on how one wastewater treatment plant is working with a company to convert the byproducts of human waste into fertilizer.

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