The issue of America’s impending water shortage is a daunting yet simple one. As population and subsequent demand increases, temperatures increase and the national water supply decreases. The average American consumes 80 to 100 gallons of water every day, the country uses around 345 billion gallons a day, and the population is expected to increase to 514 million by 2100. In addition to the American individual’s excessive water consumption, the agriculture sector continues to rapidly deplete their groundwater sources, accounting for 37% of our country’s total water usage. This blog post is not another trite doomsday report on the sad state of our water supply. But, the inclusion of these depressing facts is an essential introduction to this blog’s topic, the pros and cons of desalination plant proliferation in this country. Who exactly do these plants benefit?
Without desalination plants, around 300 million people would be water insecure. Reeling from the longest drought on record, California is desperate to secure reliable sources of fresh water for its residents. The state has twelve desalination plants currently, with four more waiting to be approved for construction. These plants provide dry areas in need of water with a constant, much-needed supply, but there are some paradoxical costs associated with these plants’ creations. First, the filters that draw in saltwater to the desalination plants kill millions of fish larvae in California alone. Second, the super salty brine water that results from the plant’s fresh water extraction can starve ocean life of oxygen if not dispersed over a large enough area. The third and most paradoxical factor of these desalination plants’ operation is that most of them are powered by fossil fuels, which warm the earth, cause more drought, create a higher demand for more desalination plants, and start a dangerous positive feedback loop of warming and drought. As damning as these facts regarding desalination plants’ environmental costs are, there can be an equally troubling financial burden put on those in the low-income bracket.
Recently, under immense pressure from environmental groups and low-income community advocates, a California Coastal Commission unanimously rejected a proposal for a $1.4 billion desalination project built in Huntington Beach. One of the opposition’s main arguments for rejecting this proposal was that the plant’s creation would lead to more expensive water bills in low-income communities. The area’s water scarcity is simply not dire enough for an increase in water bill payments, advocates argued. This example of a desalination plant’s expenses should act as a reminder to all readers that combating climate change can be just another oppressive escapade if low-income communities are not considered throughout every step of the quest for a more sustainable world.
Luckily, there are several cheaper, more efficient measures that can be taken before desalination is even mentioned. The Pacific Institute’s Heather Cooley argues that “municipalities should fully implement conservation programs, promote potable (water) reuse, the reuse of wastewater, also known as toilet-to-tap recycling - or treat stormwater runoff.” Other practical solutions include reducing agricultural water use by 2% annually, repairing aging water infrastructure since an American water main breaks around every two minutes, and conserving water on the individual level. Unlike current desalination plants, many of these more sustainable solutions have positive byproducts like habitat restoration, pollution abatement, and flood control capabilities.
While the majority of salt and brackish water desalination plants are not located on the east coast, the predicted increase in New England droughts, especially in communities of color, should have all New Englanders considering desalination plants as a reliable freshwater option in their town. While these plants will most likely raise one’s water bill, damage local flora and fauna, and contribute greenhouse gas emissions if not powered by renewable sources, human health is most important, and obviously depends on water. But, one must always consider the degree to which these plants will achieve the detrimental effects mentioned above, as well as the fact that holistic water efficiency and reuse measures be considered before desalination efforts are discussed.
Heggie, Jon. “Why Is America Running out of Water?” Science, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-americas-looming-water-crisis.
Robbins, Jim, et al. “As Water Scarcity Increases, Desalination Plants Are on the Rise.” Yale E360, Yale School of the Environment, 11 June 2019, https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-water-scarcity-increases-desalination-plants-are-on-the-rise.
Fadel, Leilda. “These Are the Impacts of California's Worst Drought on Record.” NPR, NPR, 7 June 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/06/07/1103445439/these-are-the-impacts-of-californias-worst-drought-on-record.
Vasilogambros, Matt. “California Panel Unanimously Quashes Desalination Plant.” PewTrusts.org, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 16 May 2022, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2022/05/16/california-panel-unanimously-quashes-desalination-plant.
Lasky, Natasha. “Future Floods Will Increasingly Cost Communities of Color on East Coast & Gulf.” World War Zero, World War Zero, 2 Feb. 2022, https://worldwarzero.com/magazine/2022/02/future-floods-will-increasingly-cost-communities-of-color-on-east-coast-and-gulf/.
Ocean-Water Desalination a Solution or a Problem? - Heal the Bay. https://www.healthebay.org/sites/default/files/Desalination%20FAQ%20Sheet_final.pdf.