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A Solution to the California Drought?

The relentless drought in California is about halfway through its fourth year, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Not surprisingly, water restrictions are reaching drastic levels. California’s state water board approved emergency drought regulations, proposed by Governor Jerry Brown, to curtail water use in urban areas by 25%.

The situation is getting drastic and will only gain more attention as we move into summer. In an effort to find a solution, some experts are looking outside the United States to other drought-stricken communities.

Israel, for instance, seems to have alleviated its water shortage, by using a combination of tactics.

The desert country conserves water, uses a new irrigation method called drip irrigation, recycles 75% of the water used, and embraced desalination.

This last method seems to be the real clincher that saved Israel’s water supply.

After a fifth desalination plant opens later this year, 75% of the country’s municipal and industrial water will be water that has been desalinated.

Not in My Backyard

California is nowhere near Israel’s numbers. Less than half of California’s farmers use drip irrigation, and the state recycles only 13% of its municipal wastewater.

And the state has made only a few tentative efforts to move toward desalination.

A $1-billion desalination plant in Carlsbad, California is set to begin operations this fall. It’ll be the largest such plant in the Western Hemisphere, and will supply 7% of San Diego County’s water. A similar-sized facility is planned for Huntington Beach in Orange County.

But don’t expect many more such facilities… California isn’t very keen on desalination. Ironically, the first reverse osmosis membrane was produced at UCLA in 1959.

One reason is that the most common desalination process is very energy intensive (three kilowatt-hours per cubic meter). In fact, the Carlsbad site was chosen because it’s next to an NRG Energy power station and can share the station’s water lines.

This process, called reverse osmosis, involves pumping seawater at high pressure through filtration membranes to remove salt and other impurities. Doubters of desalination’s value say it takes double the energy used to pump water 500 miles from the Sacramento Delta to San Diego – the state’s most power-hungry water delivery network.

The second objection to desalination comes from the environmentalists.

You see, they’re worried about the potential harm to marine life caused by both the intake pipes and the discharge of very salty brine back into the ocean.

Many environmentalists consider desalination only a last resort. And, as Kira Redmond, the Executive Director at the non-profit Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, told Bloomberg, “We don’t agree that we’re at the last resort.”

The company behind the Carlsbad facility, privately held Poseidon Water, has had to endure six years of government permitting and more than a dozen lawsuits from environmental groups.

But, on May 6, California’s water regulators did approve a new, uniform permitting process for the building of desalination plants.

New Technology on the Way

There’s probably little that can be done to overcome objections from environmentalists. However, there may be energy-efficient improvements for the desalination process on the way.

You see, Israel was able to adopt desalination widely because the cost of desalination fell from about $1 per cubic meter to only $0.40 per cubic meter over the past few years.

The real promise, though, lies in new technology from defense giant, Lockheed Martin (LMT), which could change some minds about desalination.

Engineers at the company have patented a molecular filtration membrane called Perforene. It’s made from graphene, a new nanomaterial made from a carbon sheet that’s only one-atom-thick

Perforene is said to be 1,000 times stronger than steel and 500 times thinner than the best existing reverse osmosis filter on the market today.

Lockheed’s John Stetson says both the energy and pressure required for desalination using Perforene will be 100 times less. That’s certainly a game changer!

Less energy is needed because the sheet is dotted with holes that are one nanometer or less.

And, since the sheet is so thin, the water just pops through, leaving the salt and other impurities behind, which are trapped by the holes that dot the sheet, between the carbon atoms.

The company is also looking at using Perforene in the oil industry for use in treating drilling wastewater. It’s currently working with two oil and gas firms to test this technology.

Commercialization of Lockheed’s material is probably still several years away, however.

But, it can’t come soon enough for California.

And the chase continues,

Tim Maverick

Tim Maverick

, Senior Correspondent

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