No Blood for Water!

Drinking the water Dana Rohrabacher surfs in

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.

The plant would be a public/private operation, with the private part being Poseidon Resources, a Connecticut company that built the nation's largest desalination plant, in Tampa Bay, Florida, now in its shakedown stage and due to go full-tilt in a couple of months. The Huntington Beach plant could open in 2006, if the regulatory hoops and commissions are successfully navigated, according to Poseidon Vice President Billy Owens, who is overseeing development of the plant.

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Private ownership of water distribution has received a deservedly bad rap in recent years, with companies such as Enron acquiring water rights in Third World countries and gouging the citizenry. Owens was quick to point out the distinctions here.

"We're not proposing privatization, where in places like Venezuela and Argentina they've taken municipal systems and sold them into private hands," he said. "We're looking for a public/private partnership. One thing public agencies don't typically do is take risks. It's not in their charter or in their culture. So we see our role as facilitating a transition."

That means Poseidon assumes the cost, risk and bother of building the plant and ideally makes their tidy profit from it for a while, after which public agencies can buy it. Owens estimates it should cost $170 million to build the plant.

Here's why desalination is only a qualified win-win: it's an energy-intensive process, and the resulting water isn't cheap. But there are mitigations to those qualifications. Governor Gray Davis, in his infinite wisdom, now has California running at a costly energy surplus, and that power has to be used for something; it might as well be clean water.

Meanwhile, the cost of the de-salted water—$800 an acre-foot—is nearly twice the rate we currently pay for our piped-in water. But, biologist Kelly says, if you factor in the environmental costs of that water, it makes the seawater more appealing. With new regulations on arsenic and other contaminants taking effect, and with new worries about the rocket fuel that has been leeching into the Colorado, the sea-derived water may soon look like a bargain.

When people think about Huntington Beach, they think about surfing, but only after they think about what a toilet the waters have become. According to Owens, though, the plant will get its water from deep down a mile out, where their testing has shown it's cleaner than our current drinking water sources. Kelly also points out that reverse osmosis is so effective that you could get good drinking water out of straight wastewater, not that I'd wait in line for a glass.

Then there's the problem of production. The HB plant's yield of 50 million gallons per day is a whole lot of water, but only 8 percent of what Orange County sends down the drain every day. It can help make up for what we're losing from the Colorado and allow our drought-tapped groundwater a bit of replenishing time. Projected future droughts should result in even less of the river water we use to make the electricity we use to make drinking water, so desalination doesn't look like a permanent solution.

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Though the technology has only recently improved, desalination has been around for decades. The Federal Government built a plant in San Diego in the early 1960s but never did the public much good because it was moved to the Marine base at Guantanamo, Cuba, in 1964 after Fidel Castro shut off the water supply following our Bay of Pigs incursion.

You can't help but wonder that if we spent our national will and money on infrastructure and technologies that help people, instead of those that make them bleed, maybe we wouldn't be in this water fix today.

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