It's going to be a hot, feverish summer, even more so because water supplies are pinched unusually tight. Nowhere is that as true as in California. On New Year’s day, Interior Secretary Gale Norton rudely weaned the state off its long-running overuse of Colorado River water, slashing access to the river by 15 percent.
Now, California water agencies are scrambling to
line up replacement supplies. But instead of looking east and
north, as they always have, they're looking west, to the shimmering
Pacific Ocean. Water officials are talking with unbounded
enthusiasm about what one observer calls "aquatic alchemy."
The key is desalination, which forces seawater through
special membranes, squeezing out the salt and creating fresh water.
Though it sounds far-fetched, desalination is already reality. In
Saudi Arabia, 27 desalination plants provide about 70 percent of
the country's drinking water supply. This March, Tampa, Fla., fired
up a huge new desalination plant. And in California, there are now
proposals or plans for 13 such plants.
The only thing
standing in the way is money. Desalination is energy-intensive:
When it was first proposed in the 1950s, it was closely linked with
the developing nuclear power industry, which means it has never
been anything but costly. But as traditional water projects like
dams become more expensive, desalination is becoming comparatively
In San Diego, where officials have studying
seawater desalination for more than a decade, the water authority
is forging ahead with a $270 million plant that should be
operational by 2008.
"Seawater desalination is very
cost-competitive with developing new water supplies," says the San
Diego Water Authority's Dennis Cushman. "It's a drought-proof
supply of water backed up by the largest reservoir on earth -- the
A turn toward desalination would be the
capstone of an expensive, almost century-long drive to keep the
growth euphoria going in Southern California. First, the region
tapped the eastern Sierra with the Los Angeles Aqueduct; then,
after the construction of Hoover Dam, it funneled water across 242
miles of unrepentant desert in the Colorado River Aqueduct; in the
1960s, it began drawing water from California through the State
But if we make this next leap without
stopping to appreciate what it represents, we're sure to lose all
sense of perspective for the future. These days, the term "era of
limits" is being bandied about so much that it's become a
cliché. Yet it is the defining formulation of the 21st century
world in which we live. Turning to the sea seems to ignore those
Adrift on the ocean, the thirst-crazed
protagonist of Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
made his famous lament in 1798: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any
drop to drink." Two centuries later, we can squeeze a drink from
the sea, though it means pushing the natural boundaries farther
than they've ever been pushed before.
In essence, we're
refining water, or beating it out of its natural environment, and
we are overrunning the carrying capacity of the arid West. Maybe,
when a glass of water with a salted rim becomes standard fare, the
concept of "limits" might finally begin to dawn on our
growth-addled minds. Then, we might temper our relentless sense of
optimism in the face of clear signs that we're pushing the limits
of the earth.
For now, precisely the opposite thing is
happening. A pair of desalination boosters wrote in the San Diego
Union-Tribune: "Ironically, as a result of global warming, sea
level is likely to rise two feet along most of the U.S. coast.
Therefore, Southern California should be looking to the ocean to
supply its water demand."
The image is almost heroic:
coastal Californians drinking their way to salvation. As for the
human byproduct of all that consumption, the water wizards are
working on that, too. If all goes according to plan, water once
flushed away will be the raw material for the next leap over
conventional environmental limits. Engineers are perfecting "toilet
to tap" technologies to turn treated sewage back into drinking
Water managers talk about the need to overcome the
"yuck factor" to win public acceptance of such programs. But as for
hard questions about hitting the earth's natural limits? Well,
we'll defer those to the future.