Fighting Water Woes
As global shortages grow, the U.S. turns to high-tech solutions
When three drunken white men drove through the Native American village of Chiloquin, Oregon, in 2001, blasting a portable toilet with a shotgun and yelling, â€Sucker lovers, come out and fight!â€ locals got an Americanized taste of the conflict that might dominate the world´s next century: water wars. Irrigation had been cut off to protect endangered suckerfish, considered sacred by the Klamath tribe. As resulting droughts pitted area ranchers and farmers against tribe members, water was becoming a bargaining tool in Uzbekistan and Gaza, a military target in Lebanon, Nepal and Darfur, and a catalyst for riots in Somalia, China, India and Pakistan. â€There´s always been conflict over water,â€ says environmental scientist Peter Gleick, whose Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, compiles a list of flare-ups dating back to 2500 B.C., â€but the tension is growing.â€
The U.N. estimates that by 2025, five billion of the world´s projected 7.9 billion people will lack access to safe water. Although the most dire crises will certainly be outside our borders, in the U.S.- where the population just surpassed 300 million, water-storing snowpacks are melting in a warming climate, and people use more water per capita than anywhere else (up to 100 gallons a day)-conditions are ripe for conflict. Our aquifers are draining faster than they can be replenished, and the biggest, Ogallala, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas, has seen localized drops in the water table of 150 feet. Seven Western states are stuck trying to wring more water from the drought-ridden Colorado River, which is already reduced to 0.1 percent of its volume by the time it reaches the Gulf of California.
Enter desalination. The world´s largest inland plant, an $87-million, 27.5-million-gallons-per-day (MGD) project in El Paso, Texas, will make brackish groundwater potable starting this year-just as the country´s first large-scale seawater plant, a troubled 25-MGD facility, finally begins operations in Tampa, Florida. In Arizona, a test reopening of the mothballed Yuma Desalting Plant may mitigate Colorado River losses, and in California as many as 20 desalination projects along the coast will be debated. The fate of the biggest plants, two 50-MGD facilities in Carlsbad and Huntington Beach, could be decided by this summer.
Electricity-hungry desal plants are becoming more economically viable because of advances in water-purifying reverse-osmosis membranes, tens of thousands of which are contained in a large plant: The newest can produce upward of 10,000 gallons a day apiece, up from 5,000 gallons in the late 1990s. Composite materials may soon double a membrane´s life-10 years rather than five-and nanotube-based membranes will shorten the length each water molecule must travel. â€If this happens, plant productivity will go up 20 times,â€ says Nikolay Voutchkov of Poseidon Resources, the company behind the Carlsbad and Huntington Beach projects. â€It´s like having a vacuum-tube computer, then switching to the microprocessor.â€ The company´s vision for the future doesn´t stop there. If the Carlsbad bid goes through, it plans to engineer the city´s tap water to have the mineral content and taste of Pellegrino bottled mineral water.
Gleick, meanwhile, cautions that desalination is a supply-side solution to a demand-side problem. He wonders if the price tag and environmental effects-marine kills during intake, discharges of hypersaline brine-are worth it. Indeed, the best solutions to the coming water crisis may be as mundane and varied as low-volume-flush toilets and drought-resistant crops, especially in the developing world, where funds for Pellegrino-spitting facilities are as scarce as water itself. -McKenzie Funk