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Desalination: Unlocking lessons from yesterday’s solution (part 1)

Sunset at Huntington Beach, California. Source: paige_eliz on Flickr.Sunset at Huntington Beach, California. Source: paige_eliz on Flickr.

There is powerful information waiting to be unleashed in water data. If it were set free it would force us to re-think how we use, develop, sell, transfer, and dispose of water. Rather than focusing on the miles per gallon our cars get, we might consider how much water per mile we get from that fuel. Rather than arguing over how much energy is being used to produce water, we would give credit to how much water is required to produce energy. Rather than focusing on whether our food is grown locally, we would consider how much water it took to grow that food in our locality.

For all the lip-service we give to water and its pivotal role, why is there not a U.S. Water Information Administration modeled after the U. S. Energy Information Administration? Established in 1977 as a response to the 1973 oil disruptions, the EIA “collects, analyzes, and disseminates independent and impartial energy information to promote sound policymaking, efficient markets, and public understanding of energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment.” With a budget of $111 million per year, the agency produces data and analysis free of influence from the Executive Branch. The water sector screams for such a resource.

My particular interest in water began in 2003 when I served on the California Desalination Task Force, a group appointed by the State Legislature to look into the opportunities and impediments of desalination. Data is at the heart of reaching conclusions on a technology. Where did the data come from that allowed the committee to write its findings and recommendations? Who verified the veracity of the data? Would it stand up to scrutiny? I have spent eight years chasing such questions.

Information is not easy to come by. There are over 52,000 public and private water utilities in the U.S alone operating largely in anonymity. Public utilities offer varying levels of transparency, private utilities virtually none. The desalination industry consists of over 30,000 companies producing membranes, tanks, chemicals, pipes, monitoring, design, construction, mitigation, engineering, drilling, waste management, and consulting services. Many are competitors and hold data close to the vest. Foraging through public information, industry publicity, scientific papers, and news stories produces information that is contradictory and confusing.

There are 19 desalination projects proposed for California's coast. With billions of dollars at stake, the public deserves more clarity on financial and environmental impacts. What are the assumptions that underlie our decisions to move forward? What issues are being left unaddressed? What lessons have we missed that could inform better water planning? Water agencies may be satisfied with the industry's propaganda, but my research suggests they should pause and re-examine where we have been and where we are going.

Remembering the past

Desalination proponents throw out numbers that cannot be verified or replicated and those numbers are repeated by the media and government officials as if they were fact.

An article published by the Los Angeles Times on December 4, 2010 is an example.

“Although still not cheap, the cost of desalinated water has been cut by more than half since 1998, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.”

I contacted the reporter to find the source of this statement and received no reply. I searched the USGS website and found an out-of-date overview of desalination with an unsourced sentence that looked like it might be the culprit of the reporter’s “fact.”

“As of 1998, the high cost of desalination has kept it from being used more often, as it can cost over $1,000 – $2,200 per acre-foot (1992 cost basis) to desalinate seawater as compared to about $200 per acre-foot for water from normal supply sources. Desalination technology is improving and costs are falling, though, and Tampa Bay, Florida is currently desalinizing water at a cost of only $650 per acre foot.”

Thinking there might be additional data available from the USGS, I contacted them. They were unable to direct me to any reports or studies to verify the veracity of the claim that Tampa Bay is producing water at $650 an acre-foot. Most likely the figure came from the original presentations made to Tampa Bay Water over a decade ago. Price was probably the motivating factor in Tampa Bay's decision to construct a project, but as NOAA stated in a 2003 publication, “Time will not only tell the environmental impacts of Tampa Bay’s desalination plant, but it will also determine if it’s really producing the cheapest desalted seawater in the world.” It would be wonderful if time did tell its secrets. Unfortunately for truth seekers, time may tell but no one is listening.

Last March, according to Tampa Bay's General Manager, the cost of production was $1140/acre-foot. It's anyone's guess how he came up with that figure. If you calculate the marginal cost of water based on what the plant has actually produced since 2003, then the cost of water is closer to $1826/acre-foot. Either way, the reporter did the public a disservice by perpetuating the myth that desalinated water can be produced at $650 per acre-foot. I could almost hear the gullible politicians jumping on board.

Los Angeles annual rainfall 1876-2007. Will cyclical weather patterns turn desalination plants into expensive orphans? Source: Data from Los Angeles Almanac.

Los Angeles annual rainfall 1876-2007. Will cyclical weather patterns turn desalination plants into expensive orphans? Source: Data from Los Angeles Almanac.Los Angeles annual rainfall 1876-2007. Will cyclical weather patterns turn desalination plants into expensive orphans? Source: Data from Los Angeles Almanac.The reporter could have provided a valuable public service had she written about Tampa's twelve years of bankruptcies, technical challenges, and cost overruns. A search of news archives produced an interesting collection of stories, likely with similar fact checking issues, but nevertheless, interesting for the overall picture they paint.

1998 engineering contract awarded to Stone & Webster

2000 Stone and Webster declares bankruptcy

2001 Covanta (partnering with Poseidon Resources) hired to construct and operate for 30 years at $7 million/year

2003 (March) initial output begins producing 3 million gallons but acceptance test fails

2003 (August) plant is shut due to clogged filters

2004 Tampa Bay pays $4.4 million for Covanta to go away

2004 (September) American Water Services hired to fix plant at cost of $29 million. Completion projected for 2006.

2006 (January) Agreement reached between Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) (agency funding $85m of project) and Tampa Bay for payments: 25% when plant is running, 50% when it operates at an annual average rate of 12.5 mg/d for 12 consecutive months, 25% when plant produces 25 mg/d for four consecutive months.

2006 (November) Tampa Bay Executive Director announces additional delays

2007 (August) Tampa Bay announces plant should be running by Halloween

2007 (December) Officials complete 14 day acceptance test. American Water contracts to run plant for 15 years.

2008 $48 million over its original budget of $110 million, the plant is operating

2009 plant producing 16-19 mg/d

2010 (February) plant passes final benchmark, receives final payment

2010 (April) plant put on “standby” due to Tampa Bay's budget constraints

2010 (October) Pinellas County (customer of Tampa Bay Water) projects water rate increases of 16% by 2014

2010 (December) SWFMD looks into sanctions against Tampa Bay Water for failure to operate facility in accord with agreement.

2011 (January) Tampa Bay announces plans to reach 9 mg/d production by end of January.

Reviewing the news accounts of the Tampa Bay experience gave me pause. Having served in public office, I am familiar with the face-saving, “circle the wagons” mentality that takes over an agency when problems start to mount. Unfortunately, it means others are not likely to learn any lessons.

No one contemplated a standby plant at Tampa Bay. Now, faced with real production costs higher than the rate guaranteed to customers ($841/acre-foot versus $1140 or more), Tampa Bay will eventually have to raise rates or renegotiate an agreement that locks them a 17 mg/d production rate.

Originally posted January 17, 2011 at State of the Planet.

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