Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Freshwater Ghost Towns and the Promise of Desalination

This piece is a first draft of an editorial I'm penning for a friend.
Does the "American Dream" automatically include a green lawn fed by the rhythmic clatter of sprinklers across our "crabgrass frontier?" If you live out West, you've likely already addressed this question . . . and probably endured restrictions on watering your lawn! In some parts of the country a lush, green yard, resembling those featured in annoying Scott's commercials for fertilizers and anti-weed treatments, may soon be a thing of the past. In fact, in western states, concern has obviously moved beyond the silly aesthetics of lawn care to the more serious issue of having sufficient water supplies for human consumption and agricultural production.

For decades the response to growing demand has been the construction of canals and pipelines to tap the resources of the region's more water-rich areas. (And, as Marc Reisner detailed in Cadillac Desert, this drive for water was not always accomplished through friendly or entirely legal means.) But as long as rain and snowfall amounts remained relatively constant, supply met demand. Nevertheless, after decades of unrestrained development, increased demand for water, and several years of severe drought, the water supply and demand equation is not so easily balanced. Factor in the admonitions of scientists studying the myriad effects of global warming and attendant climate change, and one faces the likelihood of dire consequences for large sections of the United States, particularly the West.

Emerging from this debate over dwindling water resources is renewed interest in the potential of desalination. To most Americans, desalination is associated with Israel, Saudi Arabia and neighboring, largely desert nations. Surprisingly, desalination of brackish water has been undertaken for decades in the U.S., particularly in the treatment of water entering Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government actually funded desalination research and, through the Army Corps of Engineers, built a number of plants, most in the West. With adequate rainfall, as well as greater investment in canals and pipelines, however, funding for desalination technologies dried up and federally-run plants were mothballed.
Yet with water shortages a reality and alarmist predictions of future shortfalls sounding more likely, desalination processes now attract greater attention and capital. Although desalination can be accomplished by several means, including evaporation/condensation, vacuum distillation, and electrodialysis, reverse osmosis remains the dominant technology worldwide. With reverse osmosis, high-pressure pumps force water through semi-permeable membranes which filter out the dissolved solids. For ocean proximate communities threatened by imminent water crisis, these desalination technologies offer an enticing response to predictions of dryer years ahead.

Still, what about land-locked cities - Denver, for example - that do not have the option of establishing desalination plants to solve their future water consumption needs? For those communities that do not have access to an ocean or significant agricultural runoff, the painful reality will likely reflect two scenarios: localities will face substantially slowed growth or even population and commercial decline as water becomes more scarce, or, they will find themselves shopping for water resources from those lucky municipalities that have a marketable water surplus, in the way some local utilities now shop the national electric grid for power. Except water, unlike electricity, is not an easy commodity to transport in large quantities. Not every city or town facing water shortages will possess the capital to invest in pipelines or other modes of transport. Moreover, large cities will face significant opposition from environmentalists - and competing communities - in their efforts to alter further the western landscape with dams, pipelines and canals. Las Vegas, for example, faces serious legal battles in its efforts to tap the springs and rivers of northern Nevada.

Assuming the mantle of historical geographer and studying a map of the West, one sees a landscape dotted with ghost towns. Yet they're not of the mythic "Old West" variety; they are towns that sprang up in response to the discovery of gold, silver, copper and uranium, or flourished when the first roads spidered westward to California. Today, there are countless exit ramps along the east-west highways that lead to abandoned mining communities and once prosperous towns with derelict truck stops, gas stations, garages and warehouses. Fifty to 75 years from now, we may have a new breed of ghost towns - communities that emerged around the burgeoning agribusinesses that took advantage of post-Depression irrigation efforts, but dried up as their access to inexpensive water evaporated. Even larger interior cities like Denver may face significant contraction if their diminished water supplies, dependent on the shrinking snow pack of the Rockies, can not be supplemented by other sources. Water-stressed urban areas may become the West's equivalent of decaying, post-industrial "Rust Belt" cities, their economic hearts on life support as businesses and citizens leave for - literally - greener climes. And one suspects that these new ghost towns of strip malls and convenience stores will prove neither as picturesque nor as attractive to tourists as Bodie, California, and similarly "historic" mining communities.

And the prospects for those areas which ultimately embrace desalination technologies? Although a promising alternative, desalination offers no "silver bullet" in the drive to supplement dwindling water resources. Indeed, for some environmentalists and investors alike, current desalination methods promise as many headaches as solutions.

Desalination is, in fact, a high cost process. (Oil rich countries in the Middle East simply use their petroleum profits to fund desalination plants.) How will California and neighboring states meet this expense? Higher taxes? Surcharges for increased water use? Neither alternative will prove popular among residents already clamoring for tax reform and relief from high energy costs.

In addition, desalination plants are big power consumers. In a region struggling to meet current power demands, how will an overburdened energy infrastructure meet the needs of communities that invest in desalination plants? Do we secure adequate water supplies with a concomitant increase in the consumption of fossil fuels? And, since the U.S. is allegedly the "Saudi Arabia of coal," are new coal-fired plants brought online to feed our energy needs and power new desalination plants? One potential solution is investment in nuclear-powered desalination, an effort currently being tried in the former Soviet Union. Australians have taken the innovative step of powering desalination plants with wind-driven turbines, as a recent New York Times article reveals (New York Times, April 3, 2007). Yet both nuclear and wind power technologies will doubtless prove controversial options vis-a-vis their possible environmental impact in the West.

Finally, one must consider the environmental impact of the desalination process. How do communities dispose of the hypersaline brine, classified as industrial waste by the EPA? Uncontrolled discharge into oceans invites environmental disaster. And, given growing public concern over the tenuous health of the Pacific ecosystem - in the much-studied area of Monterrey Bay, for example - it is unlikely that localities will embrace the promise of clean water at the expense of local fisheries and marine life.

Study a 19th century map of America's trans-Mississippi West and one finds much of it labeled as the "Great American Desert." In the 1850s, settlers heading westward for California and Oregon saw this region as an obstacle no less imposing than the Rockies - an area to be traversed as quickly as possible to reach the promise of prosperity on the coast. Thanks to irrigation, however, regions like California's Imperial Valley became veritable "Edens" coaxed from desert soils. Tapping the seemingly limitless Ogallala Aquifer, farmers in the semi-arid High Plains from Nebraska to Texas transformed a grass-covered prairie into one of the most productive regions for growing corn, wheat and soybeans.

What happens if the increasingly burdened Colorado River, which feeds the Imperial Valley's All-American Canal, can no longer meet the needs of the region's cities and agricultural producers? What are the consequences when drought and demand so severely attenuate the primary source of water for more than 20 million people? (And, just as the Colorado is threatened, heightened agricultural demand now depletes the Ogallala Aquifer at a speed far exceeding the replacement rate.) With drought conditions and an impending battle over how western water resources are apportioned, desalination plants with pipelines supplying the interior may be the only means to forestall an economic disaster. Without adequate water, areas such as the Imperial Valley and the High Plains may quickly resemble that label of "Great American Desert" once erroneously attached to much of the West.

Desalination may represent the most viable answer to the conundrum of meeting the United States' water needs. Yet clearly it's an answer wrapped in a matrix of complex political, economic and environmental issues. With several western states preparing to square off in court over disputed water rights, the prospect of an acrimonious and extended legal battle would appear to necessitate aggressive exploration of desalination's potential. Communities in California and Arizona, for example, fearing future water shortages, have already reopened old plants and begun studying construction of new desalination facilities. Moreover, for green-minded investors, desalination technologies would seem a logical magnet for capital.

Still, unless one is directly affected by water shortages, it may prove difficult to galvanize popular interest in the debate over the efficacy of desalination programs, particularly when the media pay so much attention to the Middle East and its role in feeding our fossil fuel diet. Think of it in these terms, however. In 1999, the Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Yamani, offered an ironic conclusion when asked about the significance of oil to his nation's development. "All in all, I wish we had discovered water," he remarked, a telling observation in a world so often assessed through the refracted politics of oil. In the end, water may be the 21st century's oil, and could prove even more expensive. Desalination will doubtless play a role in mitigating predicted water shortages. Nevertheless, the extent to which this process will offer a panacea to thirsty communities remains to be seen.

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