It was bound to happen; really only a matter of time. When you’re stricken with the worst drought on record, and when your state shares a nice, long border with the ocean, inevitably people start turning their eyes toward the Pacific and wondering if desalination (the process of making salt water drinkable) might be a viable water source.
Regular readers know that so far as The Longest Straw is concerned, we don’t advocate for desalination. Instead, we believe that Los Angeles (and other urban areas like it) have ample water as long as we commit to reclamation, recycling, greywater implementation, and conservation. All of those things take a lot of work, but in our humble opinion, they’re worth it, and provide a far more viable solution than desalination. Why is that?
There are three major drawbacks to desalination: the cost, the energy footprint, and the briny byproducts. Let’s look at each of those drawbacks in isolation to show why developing local water resources is preferable.
First: the cost. A gallon of desalinated sea water costs twice as much as water that’s acquired through other means. Our current water system involves a mix of imported, recycled, and desalinated, but the price will only grow as costly desalinated water grows as a water source. When it comes to a basic life necessity, you can’t price the poor out of your consumer base.
And why is desalinated water so expensive? Because it needs a massive amount of energy to work. Water must be heated to the point of boiling multiple times, and massive amounts of electricity must be used to produce all that heat. In other words, desalination will contribute to our energy crisis, making two building blocks of modern life and society dependent on scarce resources. Compare that to processes like implementing greywater and conservation on an individual level, which require no additional energy output, and it’s clear which is the better solution.
Finally, there’s the brine. After desalination, you’re left with clean, pure drinking water and… everything that came out of it to make it clean. And we’re not just talking salt, either. Brine also includes minerals and is denser than the water in the ocean. When this brine is concentrated, it becomes toxic – even to sea life that lives in briny water. So we can’t dump brine in the ocean without risking mass extinctions, meaning desalination has a major waste problem. And that’s not even considering the small fish and other life that can get sucked into the intake that collects sea water. In short, desalination replaces the ecological destruction of water importation and trades it for a different form of ecological destruction.
So why is developing local water sources preferable? For one thing, most of the things you can do on the local level have a conservation element. Using less water, re-using water in greywater systems, and recycling waste water all come down to using less, which saves money and resources. Respecting the water we have and protecting it from pollution will result in a preserved ecosystem. The only viable long-term solution to the water crisis in California and Los Angeles must stem from looking in our own yards, instead of looking outside our community for more opportunities to take. The future is in our hands, if only we can be responsible.