Analysis: Desalination may get federal aid

By PHIL MAGERS  |  April 21, 2004 at 7:04 PM
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DALLAS, April 21 (UPI) -- A bill filed Wednesday in Congress would use federal energy grants to encourage the development of more desalination plants as a way to meet the nation's growing water needs.

Under the measure, $200 million would be spent each year to lower the energy costs of converting seawater and brackish water into fresh water. Advanced technology has lowered operating costs, but energy is still an expensive factor.

Reps. Jim Davis, D-Fla., Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Richard Pombo, R-Calif., are co-sponsors of the legislation backed by the U.S. Desalination Coalition, a group of 13 water agencies pushing desalination.

The legislation was announced in Washington on the eve of Earth Day as another way to address the nation's worsening water shortages. Supporters say the bill is a way for the federal government to encourage long-term water solutions.

"With every scorching summer, America rapidly depletes our fresh water supply," said Davis. "It is time for Congress to take steps to help water parched communities take advantage of innovative technology to address water shortages and plan for the future."

Desalination has been used for years overseas; in fact, most of Saudi Arabia's drinking water comes from the ocean. Cost has kept it from catching on in the United States, but since 1990 that cost has fallen from $2,000 per acre-foot to about $900, due to advances in the technology.

The factor in the operating cost that hasn't fallen enough, however, is energy, according to Hal Furman, director of the Desalination Coalition. The cost of electricity is the single-largest component in the cost of the process, he said.

"The notion is that these incentive payments of 62 cents per thousand gallons for a period of 10 years will encourage the development of desalination projects and make them cost competitive with other sources of water so that we can begin to address some of the really significant regional water-supply problems we have all over the country today," he said in a phone interview.

Under the Desalination Energy Assistance Act of 2004, a program would be established in the Department of Energy to provide payments to desalination projects following a competitive process. Funding would come from the department's renewable energy program.

"Put bluntly, America is running out of drinkable water," Furman said. "Continued population growth in many parts of the country, exacerbated by worsening drought conditions and lowering water tables, have created a crisis situation that we can no longer afford to ignore."

Although desalination is often pictured as a solution only for coastal communities, it can also be used to convert brackish groundwater. New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada are exploring such uses, along with areas of West Texas.

The largest seawater desalination plant in North America is in Tampa Bay, Fla. The $110 million facility produces the world's least expensive desalinated water, about 28 million gallons per day, according to officials.

Although some environmentalists are concerned about the impact in coastal areas, several studies have predicted the Tampa Bay plant will not increase salinity beyond its normal seasonal variations or have any impact on the bay's marine life.

In Texas, a new plant at Brownsville is tapping into a nearby salty aquifer rather than the nearby Gulf of Mexico, which would be more costly to process. The region used to depend on the Rio Grande, but that river is in such sorry shape it stopped flowing twice in the past three years.

The state is also supporting the development of a seawater desalination plant on the coast.

Furman said the cost of desalination will continue to fall and will probably be competitive with other water sources in 10 years, but the nation can't afford to wait that long.

"The question is, what is the economic cost of waiting when we've got significant problems across the nation and we could make a fairly modest investment in this technology today and help solve these problems in the more immediate term," he said.

There are about two dozen seawater desalination plants proposed on the California coast, according to a recent report by the state's Coastal Commission, which monitors that development. Some would be the largest in the nation.

The commission did not take a position for or against desalination, but it did stress that each application would have to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the impact on coast and marine ecosystems and the associated population growth it might bring.

The energy assistance bill drew immediate criticism from the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation's largest environmental groups.

"Our basic feeling is that if the federal government is going to invest in desalination, it should do it in a way that encourages innovation and energy efficiency instead of masking the cost of the existing technology with an energy subsidy," said Monty Schmitt, a NRDC scientist in San Francisco.

"We encourage energy efficiency in refrigerators and air conditioners by rewarding innovation and not by sending consumers a check monthly to basically cover the cost of the inefficiency."


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