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Could Israel’s water technology ease drought conditions in California?

April 25, 2015 at 6:24 PM EDT
Could the technology used in Israel that successfully turned the country's water shortage into a surplus be implemented in California to ease the state's drought? KQED Public Media reporter Daniel Potter joins Alison Stewart via Skype from San Francisco to discuss.

ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: Keeping Israel’s successful plan in mind, we wondered if or how Israel’s water technology, especially its use of desalination, could be put to use in drought-stricken California.

For more about that now, we are joined now from San Francisco by Daniel Potter. He is a reporter for KQED Science.

So, Daniel, it’s sort of obvious. People look and think, well, California’s is obviously right next to the Pacific Ocean. Why isn’t desalination a bigger part of the conversation about the drought? Why isn’t it?

DANIEL POTTER, KQED: I think the short answer is because desalination is a really — setting up a desalination plant is a very long-term process. It requires a lot of permitting and a huge amount of investment. So, setting up a desalination plant, a lot of people I have talked to have said there is a good chance that plant would not be finished until long after the drought ended.

ALISON STEWART: Are there desalination plant working, in progress in California? I know there are a couple that are in the process of being constructed, correct?

DANIEL POTTER: There are a few tiny ones that already exist and that are desalinating presently. The biggest one is in Carlsbad. It’s set to come on line probably this fall, and when it’s ready it will produce something like 7 percent of the water for San Diego County. That project is on the order of something like $900 million or maybe $1 billion.

ALISON STEWART: So, is there some sort of subtext here about the privatization of water?

DANIEL POTTER: I think that’s a fraught topic, especially in California, because the history of water policy here is so complex and so many people have different and competing sources of water. You have a farmer in one place, who has to let his crops die, and a farmer in another place who is planting almonds which are a very water-intensive crop.

Because one guy has access to water and another one doesn’t, one place can pay, you know, maybe 10 bucks an acre foot, which is about a third of a million gallons of water. Another place in southern California, people pay hundreds of dollars per acre foot.

ALISON STEWART: What is the political climate around desalination?

DANIEL POTTER: There’s a tension there. I think for companies that see desalination as an investment opportunity, there’s a lot of potential, and they see it as a big growth area. Other parts of — California, obviously, has a very strong environmental culture, and a lot of people are skeptical of it. A lot of say, why turn to desalination? It’s almost an extreme response compared to conservation, compared to reclaimed water.

ALISON STEWART: And the environmental issue is the extra salt that comes out of the water, what happens to it when you put it back in the ocean? Is that right?

DANIEL POTTER: That’s one big factor, yes. There’s a lot of leftover salt, if you’re not careful, if it’s dumped back in all at once, it’s much denser than sea water, and so it just sinks and it can hurt sea life on the bottom wherever it’s dumped. There’s also — it takes a lot of energy to run a desal positive plant, and so, people grouse about the carbon footprint as well.

ALISON STEWART: Daniel Potter from KQED, thanks for sharing your reporting.