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Can Desalination Counter the Drought?

The waves of the Pacific seem to taunt the thirsty landscape of California. The state has eight hundred and forty miles of coastline adjoining the world’s largest ocean—an oversupply of brine at a time when drought has left fallow more than half a million acres of farmland, claimed some twenty thousand jobs, and cost the economy billions of dollars. To Mark Lambert, though, the state’s water-rich coast is the overwhelming answer to its problems.

“Thirty-five thousand gallons a minute!” Lambert shouted recently, over the sound of water gushing from a fat pipe into a lagoon at the edge of the Pacific. He was showing me the discharge site of a billion-dollar desalination plant now under construction in Carlsbad, California. “Desal,” as it’s known in industry vernacular, converts ocean water into pure, delicious tap water. The fat pipe, also known as the brine pit, is where the salt that’s been removed from the drinking water is returned to the ocean.

Lambert heads up the North American division of IDE Technologies, an Israeli company that designs and operates mega-scale desalination plants worldwide. IDE’s Carlsbad facility will be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. Built in collaboration with the San Diego County Water Authority and Poseidon, a private developer of water infrastructure, the plant will come online in early fall, and is currently in the early stages of startup. Nearly a tenth of the San Diego County’s total water supply—enough for about four hundred thousand county residents—will come from this facility. A hundred million gallons of ocean water will be pumped through the plant per day; half will become drinking water, the other half will flow back into the ocean carrying the removed salt.

Twelve years in the making, the project is now uncannily well timed. “This is as good an entry into the U.S. market as we could have hoped for,” Avshalom Felber, the C.E.O. of IDE, told me.

But desal has a troubled history in the United States. Engineering problems at a Tampa Bay, Florida, plant reduced the facility’s operating capacity by eighty per cent for years, costing the city millions more than it had budgeted. A plant in Santa Barbara, California, has been mothballed for more than two decades, after a devastating drought in the nineteen-nineties. It just became too expensive to operate after rainfall returned and filled local reservoirs. Today, the total volume of desal production from seawater in the U.S. doesn’t amount to much—less than the Carlsbad plant will yield on its own.

Still, the technology has gained traction in other parts of the world. Roughly fourteen billion gallons  of desalinated drinking water are produced each day, by thousands of plants scattered along the coastlines of China, India, Australia, Spain, and other countries with scarce freshwater supplies. According to the International Desalination Association, Ras Al-Khair, in Saudi Arabia, is the largest desal plant in the world, producing two hundred and seventy-three million gallons of drinking water per day, more than five times the capacity of Carlsbad. In Israel, the technology produces about a quarter of the nation’s water supply.

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