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Monday, October 18, 2021

Sustainability in the built environment: Desalination, we can wait

lundheadshot_opMany have heard the quote “Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink”, which is simply stating that humans ironically can’t drink saltwater. This quote, however, is starting to mitigate away from colloquial language – all thanks to the desalination industry. Simply put, the desalination process removes salt from the ocean water and makes it acceptable for human consumption.  On the surface, the desalination process seems like a viable and effective process which utilizes the massive amounts of water stored within our planet’s oceans.  However, the process is not energy efficient by any means, it is harmful to our oceans, expenive and it generates copious amounts of greenhouse gasses.

With respect to obtaining water, desalination is hands down the least energy efficient form. The water initially needs to be pumped into a desalination plant. From here the water must be intensively treated. The pumping and treating process, with respect to energy, requires many orders of magnitude more energy than traditional well pumping/mountain source waters.

The desalination process is especially bad for ocean ecological groups. The current process requires huge amounts of seawater, and kills countless aquatic species, such as plankton, krill and fish.  Of course, the loss of these species introduces a change of environment for hundreds of miles of coastline. The implementation of a desalination plant generally yields disrupted coastlines and aquatic life depletion.

Personally, the nail in the coffin for me regarding desalination is the cost.  The expense for the entire process to remove the salt from ocean water is extremely cost ineffective. High energy prices coupled with transportation costs shows that desalination is not up to par.

One must not forget the fact that, although desalination has its flaws, it still does create drinking water. An interesting fact is that currently, the industry is dominated by the private sector. Could this possibly be the next form of government owned privatized energy, similar to gasoline? Some food for thought.

Fortunately, the desalination process is not completely useless. The science, however, is not as advanced as it can be. The process of desalination remains a likely solution for our future water needs; but currently, it isn’t the optimal solution.  Ocean water should be converted to drinking water only if ocean ecology isn’t harmed, energy costs (and therefore greenhouse gas production) are reduced, and the cost is feasible and not dictated by privatized business nor strictly controlled by governmental policy.

Brent Lund can be reached at brlund@ucdavis.edu.

Graphic by CA Aggie Graphic Design Team

Photo by CA Aggie Photo Team

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