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New Articles 2014



The Costs of Fresh Water in a Changing World

By Dr. Lynn A. Wilson
Executive Director, SeaTrust Institute
March 22, 2014

(An abbreviated portion of this article was published in Environmental News Network, March 24, 2014)

Water scarcity was, until recently, considered by most of the developed world to be like James Hilton’s Lost Horizon:  “far away, at the very limit of distance.” However, the convergence of aquifer depletion from increasing agricultural, industrial and municipal water use with more frequent and intense extreme weather events creates an urgency  to develop new, reliable sources of fresh water to “drought-proof” communities  through a combination of desalinization technologies, water recovery and reuse  programs and PPP (public private partnerships). The race is on to provide fresh water to satisfy ever-increasing human demands. In order to make responsible decisions, changing conditions require rethinking water policy and distribution.

In 2012, desalinization plants numbered about 16,000 worldwide with reverse osmosis (RO) membrane technology representing over 60% of the plants; thermal technologies accounted for about 27%. When operational, California’s Carlsbad Desalinization Project (the largest project in the Americas) will have a 54 million gallon capacity at a cost of US$ 922 million – US$ 1 billion according to the 2014 Davos report.  Heralded as a direct solution to potable water access by vulnerable populations, this and similar projects face significant challenges including high energy usage, hyper-saline brine waste disposal, costs of facilities’ production and maintenance, water transport to the most vulnerable people, and marine ecosystem alternation.

Energy required to power the plants is primarily fossil fuel, adding to the energy burden and increasing CO2 eq emissions. While the World Economic Forum reported in 2013 that emerging technologies offer the potential for reducing energy consumption by 50% or more, those technologies are not currently available. Construction and maintenance costs grow with required pipeline and infrastructure improvement. Carlsbad has addressed costs with a unique PPP that divides the responsibilities for ownership, financing and operational arrangements between the private company that owns the operation, San Diego County Water authority that is responsible for infrastructure modifications to link to existing water systems, and the state financing authority agency for both public and private bonds. Can other national and global communities emulate the Carlsbad model?

In the absence of creative financing mechanisms, concern about the ability of economically distressed communities and developing countries to maintain desalinization projects after initial development funding is exhausted is coupled with concerns about transporting water to vulnerable populations in areas with aging or non-existent infrastructures. Significant increases in droughts and floods alter seasonal patterns of water availability and affect water quality and aquatic ecosystem health,  with implications for social and economic wellbeing that are exacerbated in regions of high poverty and political instability. Moreover, these highly stressed locales are most often located in regions experiencing the most extreme effects from extreme weather events.

Environmental hazards of desalinization range from ocean disposal of hyper-saline brine (containing not only salt but chemicals used to clean RO membranes and maintain systems), thermal pollution and alternation of ecological systems due to intake pipe activities that disturb the biological balance of delicate nearshore ecosystems. Scientific studies show that salinity change alone affects the development and propagation of species, breeding and reproductive traits, larval survival, life expectancy, and population density. Increased salinity decreases dissolved oxygen, increasing the occurrences of hypoxia.  Cleaning chemicals inhibit biological growth (e.g. sodium hypochlorite) and adjust seawater pH (e.g. sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid) while antiscaling agents like polyphosphates, maleic acid polymers, and antifoaming agents like alkylated polyglycoles and fatty acids are discharged with the hyper-saline brine, affecting various marine species near the outlet.  Recognizing the threat to fragile marine ecosystems, a 2014 World Economic Forum report outlines promising technology to mine metals from desalination brine, making desalinization waste valuable for reclamation thereby discouraging direct disposal into the ocean.  Treating brine prior to discharge, zero-liquid discharge, and selecting outfall discharge sites that maximize ocean mixing and offshore transport are also options, although each brings additional energy and financial costs.

The systems and technologies required to mitigate desalinization hazards require continued research; implementation of wise technological, ecological and financial practices must be politically feasible within different global contexts. A recent Australian study concludes that recycling and reusing water may well be the most cost effective and environmentally responsible solutions. Questions that need to be addressed are both local and global, require expert and lay input and analysis, require interchange with all disciplines that affect water decisions, and must be revisited and new knowledge is obtained.  As traditional financing for basic research for the public good has diminished, public –private partnerships are beginning to supplant traditional sources of support for research to improve water decisions as well as water infrastructure. Holistic policies need to employ multi-criteria decision analysis under a wide variety of scenarios that engage stakeholders at different scales, from local to international. New thinking must explicitly consider consequences for different water users in changing climatic conditions over time. And local strategies must engage new financing that links to risk management strategies that incorporate the local economic, social, and environmental costs of water decisions so that the choices of combined approaches are appropriate for local communities and conditions.

About Author – Lynn Wilson, Executive Director  SeaTrust Institute

Lynn Wilson, Ph.D., is Academic Department Chair for Public Administration at Kaplan University, and is a science journalist and academic author with work appearing in books, lectures, workshops, global and regional conferences and in academic, technical and trade publications. She is also the founder and CEO of scientific and educational NGO SeaTrust Institute ( Dr. Wilson is a delegate and organizational NGO Focal Point for the UNFCCC and other United Nations regimes, an IPCC AR5 and NIH reviewer, and an active researcher with projects in the U.S., Africa, and the Pacific Island States.