Seawater Desalination: Solution or Problem?

February 5, 2009 at 3:46 pm 6 comments

 Ocean desalination–a process that converts seawater into drinking water–is being hailed as the solution to water supply problems. Proponents of desalination claim that this technology will create a reliable, long-term water supply, while decreasing pressure on other overdrawn water sources. But desalination facilities have the potential to create more problems than they solve.

Here are some reasons why communities need to think twice before embracing ocean water desalination:

1. Alternatives Abound.
Smart water agencies are making great strides in adopting efficient water management practices such as conservation, reuse, and recycling. The Pacific Institute report “Waste Not, Want Not: The Potential for Urban Water Conservation in California” found that California can meet its water needs for the next 30 years by implementing offï-the-shelf, cost-effective urban water conservation. Draft guidelines released by the state of Massachusetts found that “Prior to seeking desalinated water, proponents and communities needing additional water should first achieve savings through efficient use and conservation of existing water.” Desalination is an expensive and speculative option that could drain resources away from more practical solutions.

2. It’s Expensive.
Ocean desalinated water is among the most expensive ways to supply water. Producing water through ocean desalination costs three or more times what it costs to produce water from traditional supplies. It requires multiple subsidies of both water and electricity to break even, and it entails pricey upfront construction and long-term operation and maintenance costs. California American Water Company, has demanded an upfront rate increase to provide for construction of its proposed plant in Monterey, California, before it has even produced a drop of water.

3. It Could Exacerbate Global Warming.
Enormous amounts of energy are needed to force ocean water through tiny membrane filters at a high pressure. Ocean water desalination can be greater than 10 times more energy intensive than other supply sources. Ocean desalination proponents, such as private corporations Poseidon Resources and American Water, plan to locate plants alongside existing coastal power plants, thus potentially spurring their emission of global warming pollution. Facilities also have the potential to induce urban sprawl, which could mean increased air pollution from car commuters.

4. It Creates the Potential for Corporate Control and Abuse.
Ocean desalination provides a new opportunity for private corporations to own and sell water. Currently, there is little regulation of these facilities, creating the possibility that private corporations would rate-gouge thirsty populations–similar to what happened in the Enron energy scheme.

A recent Food & Water Watch analysis compared average water rates charged by publicly and privately owned utilities in four states–California, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York–and found that privately owned water utilities charge customers significantly higher water rates than their publicly owned counterparts: Anywhere from 13 percent to almost 50 percent more.

Worse, corporate controlled desalination facilities have performed miserably. Poseidon Resources, whose largest investor is the private equity firm Warburg Pincus, botched a large facility in Tampa Bay, Florida. The facility, at a final price of $158 million, was completed years behind schedule and did not function until the Tampa Bay Water Authority took it over from Poseidon. Poseidon now plans to build several facilities in California, some of which are much larger including a facility in Carlsbad. Companies like Poseidon view the ocean not as a public resource but as a vast, untapped source of profit, with unlimited potential to supply water to the highest bidder.

5. Fisheries and Marine Environments Will Be Threatened.
Many proposed ocean desalination plants are now planning to rely on “once-through” intake structures–an outdated technology that sucks in ocean water to cool the power plant. These intakes kill fish and other organisms that cannot free themselves from the intakes or that get sucked into the plants.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, these intake structures kill at least 3.4 billion fish and other marine organisms annually. This amounts to a $212.5 million loss to anglers and commercial fishermen. California’s power plant intake structures, alone, are responsible for the loss of at least 312.9 million organisms each year, resulting in a $13.6 million loss to fishermen.

As power plants begin to shift away from once-through cooling, a real danger exists that some desalination plants will use these intakes, and marine life destruction will continue.

Further, the brine, or super salty wastewater created from the desalination process, also has the potential to upset our delicate coastal ecosystems.

6. It Could Pose a Risk to Human Health.
A number of public health experts have expressed concern about using ocean water as drinking water and the effect that new contaminants have on water quality. Some of these new contaminants include boron, algal toxins (for example, red tide) and endocrine disrupters, all of which are concentrated through the desalination process. Another concern is that ocean desalination draws water from coastal areas with sewage and storm water runoff.

7. It Promotes Environmental and Social Injustice.
Costs may be disproportionately borne by existing low-income communities, both those living near the plant who will not receive the water and those inland whose rates will increase to support the desalination plant, while gaining none of the benefits. In California, most proposed desalination plants would serve affluent communities in Marin County, the Monterey area, Cambria, southern Orange County and northern San Diego County. Low-income communities located near desalination facilities could be harmed if desalination facilities increase air pollution and limit access to the ocean for subsistence fishing. A proposed desalination plant in Huntington Beach, California would extend the life of a power plant that residents have been struggling to shut down for years.

Desalination shouldn’t be used as a quick fix to our water shortage problems. Conservation and recycling programs are usually much less expensive and less risky alternatives to building desalination plants.

Food & Water Watch is an organization dedicated to the belief that the public should be able to count on our government to oversee and protect the quality and safety of food and water. For more information, go to

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kh  |  February 5, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    This article is a bunch of crap, I’ve never seen such a one-sided, bias piece in my life. I hope people who stumble across this site are smart enough to do their own research. When it comes to serious issues like water supply, there’s no place for radical propaganda like this.

    • 2. stuartkarlan  |  February 6, 2009 at 12:06 am

      Kieth, in order to further the discussion, please give us the specific information that you think is missing from each point of the article. Please share some links that you think have a more correct perspective.

  • 3. Milt Dardis  |  February 6, 2009 at 5:50 am

    Now follow me through this Process. KISS approach I will use.
    You have 1 glass of salt water. Now you are going to convert it to fresh water using a very costly electrical process. At present the Desal Cost to Manufacture an acre foot of water is $3,000 compared to $700 per acre foot of water public agencies pay for water. Why should I pay 4x the price to drink water? What about the salt that is being returned to the Ocean. I do not see the salt being converted into table salt. So how do you justify the comments as a crap conspiracy? Do your homework or due diligence first

  • 4. niokindla  |  February 6, 2009 at 11:11 am

    The message of the original report was ulitmatley more about finding conservation solutions to our problems. The article was critiquing one aspect of a percieved grand solution to our water troubles world wide.

    The full report can be found here:

    I’d also like to hear more about other research on this issue.

  • 5. Mckenna  |  February 21, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Follow the money. (My golden rule when HUGE dollars are invested in *any* project.)

    Who wins and who loses and why is there a loser?

    Look for win-wins. This is not a win-win solution. Nor is is sustainable if it requires such huge levels of energy –
    “10 times more energy intensive.”

    I have seen even higher projections if “true” costs are added in to the final price. And how many power plants (or wind or solar farms and such) do we want added to our Island landscape just for a glass of water? Catchment anyone?

    Measured in costs of watts per gallon how much would a glass of water actually cost? What would it cost ten years from now? 20 years from now?

    Not sure why Keith’s POV is so “radically” dismissive, but I would like to hear more of his reasoning – if only to solidify the articles value.

  • 6. Bob Supplies  |  March 12, 2009 at 2:12 pm

    Spin Spin Spin, Keith’s right… very negative article… we won’t pay more than market price for water… Poseidon is investing in a water factory that they can sell the water from… they have to build it right if they are going to profit…. we already drink our reprocessed toilet water, how can sea water be worse? They can only sell to people within the pipelines reach, they can’t discriminate between rich and poor. Conservation sucks… water never dies, it’s constantly reused, it can’t be wasted, why do we treat it like it can be? Fisherman blah blah… grasping at straws… energy consumption, no worse than any other man-made water supply and we don’t have any creeks to sip from, we need man-made water. The new sewer treatment plant will process 765,000 flushes per second, for your drinking pleasure, and we have the best water in the world, I never drink bottled… too expensive!!!


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