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Desal and the Bigger Picture

August 28 2006 |
by Surfrider Foundation

Below is an OpEd piece by our own Joe Geever that was recently published in the Water Desalination Report (WDR) -- an international newsletter for governments and the water industry. WDR was very generous in allowing us space to voice our position on the link between water supply choices and the impacts it may have on cleaning up already polluted water bodies. The issue of ocean desalination is being considered in numerous states in the US, as well as numerous foreign countries. In response, Surfrider Foundation produced a "Desal Issue List" for our chapters.

The OpEd below attempts to give the "bigger picture." In some ways, the issue of desal may be the impetus for raising questions about broader water supply policies -- and choices that may actually have positive changes to the environment (as opposed to the negative impacts that potentially accompany desal).



OpEd for Water Desalination Report: An Environmentalists' Perspective
The Surfrider Foundation is a grassroots, non-profit environmental organization that works to protect our oceans, waves and beaches. Founded in 1984, we are first-hand witnesses to the degradation of our coastal environment and we are committed to restoring and preserving this precious natural resource for future generations. Most of our current staff and volunteers continue to live in coastal communities and are active surfers, swimmers, fishers and all-around ocean enthusiasts, personally concerned with the quality of the ocean.

We have serious questions about the recent enthusiasm over seawater desalination as a simple solution to perceived fresh water shortages. My father used to caution me, saying, “For every complicated problem there is always a simple solution – and it is invariably wrong.”

Surfrider Foundation is not opposed to ocean desalination. In fact, once unanswered environmental and economic questions are resolved, it may be an important component of a community’s water supply. But, the ocean is a complicated ecosystem with equally complicated problems to solve. Ocean desalination is not simply about water supply.

After exhaustive research and stakeholder input, it was agreed upon by the Pew Ocean Commission and the US Commission on Ocean Policy that we face serious consequences from past mismanagement. Among them include: intractable pollution, unsustainable coastal development, dramatic loss of coastal habitat, and fisheries on the brink of collapse. These expert panels point to “fragmented government” as the major culprit. We agree. Government agencies with narrowly focused legislative mandates do not deal well with multi-faceted problems. How we “integrate” fresh water supply choices and ocean restoration can be a template for modern “de-fragmented” governance.

Environmentalists are often accused of being “naysayers.” We want to change that perception with an emphasis on alternatives to multiple, large-scale desalination projects while resolving adverse impacts to healthy coasts and oceans.
There are numerous choices for our water demands. But traditional policy analysis and “market” economics don’t always point to the most beneficial allocation of resources. We need multi-agency policy decision processes and stakeholder groups willing to work together to find holistic new solutions.

Agencies entrusted with land use planning, flood control, wastewater treatment – and even water supply – treat water on land as a nuisance. Traditional systems convey it to the sea through filled wetlands, concrete channels and treatment facility’s ocean discharges. The public unfortunately accepts the current situation because “that’s just the way it is” – and accept more of the same as the inevitable future.
Surfrider Foundation is not simply against desalination. We are advocating alternatives that provide needed water while embracing holistic environmental and quality of life improvements.

Water conservation is a proven and readily available alternative. We applaud communities who have started education and incentive programs, and believe more can be done. Improving on this effort can create a “wave of change” in landscaping and irrigation that can also dramatically reduce urban runoff.

Recycling wastewater is easier and less expensive than it is to desalinate seawater – and both use similar technologies. The holistic benefits include reducing polluted ocean discharges – if not eventually eliminating them altogether.

We recognize the public acceptance issues facing indirect potable reuse and Surfrider is working with the city of San Diego and Los Angeles to help educate the public on the technical and environmental merits of this alternative.
We should also be re-creating and restoring wetlands to preserve this important habitat while simultaneously improving their ability to recharge groundwater aquifers.

Finally, if we need additional water after all those preferable alternatives are fully implemented, it is important that plants are designed with intakes that eliminate the unnecessary destruction of marine life. As a former commercial fisherman, the environmental damage from open ocean intakes is of particular interest to me. It is imperative that the intakes be designed to reduce impingement and entrainment to at least those levels outlined in the recent California State Water Resources Control Board scoping document for 316(b) regulations.

In general, we think seawater desalination should be given a little more thought. Approximately 20 large-scale desalination projects have been proposed on the California coast before we receive the results of research and pilot studies the State has spent millions of dollars on. My father’s caution certainly seems to apply here: there is a list of difficult and well-entrenched problems that require more than a simple desalination facility to fix. These problems include the real potential for environmental degradation, the absence of a comprehensive vision for a better future, and a governance system incapable of holistic planning. Will desalination be a part of our future? Probably. But we should first turn to the solutions that solve multiple problems rather than the apparent race for desalination that will likely just exacerbate existing problems.
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