A visitor to Santa Monica from Mars might be a bit miffed to learn of Governor Schwarzenegger’s February 27 declaration of a statewide drought emergency. “Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best,” stated California water resources director Lester Snow (it really is Lester’s surname!) in support of the declaration. Our E.T. from the Red Planet scratches his/her/its head(s). After all, our burg-by-the-bay hugs the largest known body of water in the universe – the Pacific Ocean. Looking west from Santa Monica there is water, water everywhere as far as the eye can see. Water all the way to Tokyo.Or for that matter, a visitor from Algeria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Tampa Bay or even Carlsbad CA might wonder about the governor’s drought.There are over 13,000 desalination (“desal”) plants up and running worldwide. It has become mainstream technology. Saudi Arabia gets 50 percent of its fresh water from the ocean. Israel is building desal plants and by 2013 one-third of its potable water supply will be from the Mediterranean. In Tripoli, Africa’s largest desal plant will filter enough fresh water for one million Algerians. The largest desal plant in America is in Tampa Bay. It produces 25 million gallons daily. Soon, a 50 million-gallon-a-day plant will begin construction in Carlsbad along San Diego County’s parched north coast. It will provide enough fresh water for 100,000 homes.Are there environmental downsides to desal? Of course, starting with energy consumption, although the latest generation of reverse osmosis plants are far more energy efficient than earlier plants. Concerns are also raised about desal’s impact on marine life and the proper dispersal of filtered salts and minerals. That said, were desal too onerous surely we would have heard environmental horror stories aplenty about the 13,000 plants already in operation. There is no desal Chernobyl. Cost is also a concern. Desal is considered expensive. But then our Santa Monica water agency recently imposed a 60 percent increase in water rates to be phased in over the next 36 months. Not a drop of that high priced aqua will be coming from the Pacific.In fact, no fresh water source is without environmental consequences. For example, over-pumping by the California Water Project endangers the Sacramento River Delta. Perhaps the biggest eco whammy of all seldom gets mentioned. The mouth of the Colorado River was once the continent’s biggest coastal wetlands, an area the size of Rhode Island. Today the Colorado is dry at its mouth and the wetlands are Mexican desert.What if? What if coastal California desal could supplant every drop of the state’s share of Colorado River water and renew a healthy flow to the terminus of one of North America’s great rivers. It would be the biggest coastal wetlands restoration in the history of the world – a gazillion times larger than the Ballona Wetlands — an event so big and so green even E.T. would call home with the news.
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