Editorial | Desalination of ocean water likely necessary in future

03/30/2014 12:00 AM

03/27/2014 3:02 PM

When Thomas Jefferson was secretary of state of the young United States, he directed that the desalination process – removing the salt from sea water – was printed on the backs of permits for ships leaving U.S. ports.

Long before Jefferson, sailors at sea used evaporation to obtain fresh water. Distillation techniques apparently date to ancient Greece.

In the 20th century, the growing population of the world increased the consumption of water by sixfold and the demand for water will continue to increase especially in areas such as coastal South Carolina, which includes three of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas of the U.S.

Developing new sources of potable water, for drinking and irrigating crops, surely will be a challenge for future residents and leaders of the Grand Strand. Today, we need only be aware of the situation in California to realize that desalination plants should be in the thinking of planners. The California drought will have national impact. The snowpack is about a fourth of its normal size, and there is no water to irrigate crops. Thousands of acres will not be planted with food and ultimately, the price of lettuce, for example, will increase in Little River.

In the last years of a drought two decades ago, a big desalination plant was constructed near Santa Barbara. As reported by Joel Greenberg, McClatchy Foreign Staff, the plant is dormant and officials estimate reactivating it will cost at least $20 million. California has more than a dozen desalination projects in various stages of planning, Greenberg writes. One at Carlsbad, Calif., is expected to produce 50 million gallons a day.

Israel-based IDE Technologies is involved in the Carlsbad plant, expected to be the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere, according to the article. IDE operates the desalination plant at Hadera, Israel, on the Mediterranean. Greenberg reports that Israel has “achieved a quiet water revolution through desalination.” Four plants have been constructed since 2005 and a fifth is to be completed this year. The reverse osmosis plants cost between $300 million and $450 million. They are privately owned and operated and sell water to the government.

Israel also is a world leader in treating and recycling wastewater. Hilton Head Island was developed on recycled water, a point noted by Pete Nardi, assistant general manager of the Hilton Head Public Service District. The district has three wells into the Middle Floridan Aquifer, 600 feet deep, and processes 3 million gallons of brackish water a day. The district is in the process of adding a fourth well which will add another million gallons of water. The reverse osmosis filtration process is “very economical” at 65 cents per 1,000 gallons, Nardi says. Water from the aquifer is blended with water from the mainland via a pipeline.

The process on Hilton Head is different than producing potable water from the ocean, as is done at the largest desalination plant in the United States, in Tampa, Fla. That plant produces 10 percent of the region’s water. Desalination remains costly, both in the use of energy (electrical power) and in pollution from the concentrated waste stream of brine.

Nevertheless, increased demand for water translates to continued construction of desalination plants. There are some 15,000 around the world and one of the most sustainable is in Perth, Australia. Perth is in the news of the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.

Sometime in the future, desalination inevitably will be a factor in the water supply along the Grand Strand. State, county and municipal planners must at least have the process in their thinking. They should not wait for a major drought.

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