By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Keith MayThose of you old enough to forget might remember an educational film shown in schools called Hemo the Magnificent.Hemo was the god of blood, a vain Olympian-looking cartoon character, engaged in a battle of wits with the real-life and wonderfully creaky Dr. Frank C. Baxter, who made several such films for Disney. Hemo swaggers about, full of himself, proclaiming that he's the mysterious source of life, blah, blah, blah, and modern Dr. Frank chops him right down: "You know what you are? You're just seawater!"
Our blood is essentially saline seawater, yet if we drink much seawater, we die hideously of dehydration because our kidneys have to process the excess salt, which uses more water than we've taken in, and then the parched screaming starts.
The lesson is don't drink seawater. But a proposed 11-acre superkidney of a desalination plant in Huntington Beach would allow us to do just that, producing some 50 million gallons per day of potable water from seawater.
Using the existing infrastructure that pulls water in from a mile out to cool the Edison electrical plant and the Sanitation District pipe that dumps wastewater seven miles out, the desalination plant would use reverse osmosis—sort of like what the Swiss did with Keith Richard's blood—to make the water drinkable. That process would actually be aided by the heating of the water as it passes through the Edison plant. It's like the organs of a harmonious little life form: consuming sea soup, filtering it through membranes, running it through our system for a while, and then excreting it back out.
If you're waiting for the other shoe to fall here, like this is just the cynical buildup to our mentioning the insane environmental carnage that could ensue, sorry, but this may be one time when technology actually works to help save our collective ass. Shoes may be raining down in a staccato two-step in these Bush years, but desalination looks like a qualified win-win.
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Unlike the PR-generated threat for which we're sending troops and billions of dollars halfway around the world, Southern California is facing the very real and scary threat of running out of water—you know, the fluid that constitutes most of the human body, that causes our food to grow, that keeps our SUVs spiffy, that we need in order to not be a scrubby desert? That stuff.
California's boundless population growth and urban sprawl has bled our water sources dry. The state even floated plans to bring water down from the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border (over their mossy dead bodies, those states retorted). Recent rains barely made a dent in our longest drought. Scientists predict it will only get worse and that, with global warming, whatever rain we do get won't be stored as snowpack.
This past December, the Bush administration cut California's share of water from the Colorado River down to 13 percent of what we had been getting. It's a problem of our own making, as development-crazed California has hogged more than its share for decades, which other states now need to deal with their drought crises. That said, the Bushites jumped at the chance to punish La La Land. When farmers—largely conservative Imperial Valley agribusiness types—stiffed the cities on a plan to pay the farmers $2 billion for water they get essentially for free, the Department of the Interior said that since the state couldn't agree on a water plan, they were shutting the spigot.
In January, a group of 22 California lawmakers from both parties issued a letter blaming the Bush administration for the failure of the water pact, with Republican representative Duncan Hunter writing, "The federal government's contribution . . . has been limited mainly to the issuance of threats and provocations that have impeded, rather than encouraged, agreements among Southern California water agencies." It's like Bush isn't so much a president as he is a Biblical plague. What vestige of American life has he not blighted?
But I digress. Our water situation is now so bleak that the state's Department of Water Resources says it will no longer issue "optimistic" projections of water availability, and local planning commissions may finally have to stop approving developments for which there is no water. That's the one good side of the drought; the bad side, of course, is that it's a goddamn drought.
"Meanwhile, the whole time we've been begging for more water, we've been standing with our backs to the largest body of water on Earth, which everyone knows we can de-salt," says Dennis Kelly, my favorite marine biologist. The Orange Coast College instructor has been active for decades in studying and protecting our coastline and its squishy life forms. From what he has seen, desalination shouldn't have a negative impact.
Reverse osmosis works by pumping water at high pressure through ultrafine membranes that screen out salt, bacteria and other glop, which are then returned to the sea.
"If they dumped the residue in an enclosed bay, it would kill the bay, but the volume of the ocean is so huge that the concentrations put back would drop to being almost undetectable," Kelly says.