Manufacturing ‘New’ Water for the US Southwest
The deadline for the 7 states to come up with voluntary water cuts has passed and I’m sure that as soon as the Federal government makes a decision on whether to go with California’s proposal or the 6 state’s proposal, it will be off to the courts. The lack of water is an immediate crisis and any delay will only serve to make the situation more acute. The drought has been in the media persistently and unfortunately, it is about stating the obvious – water in the Colorado River system is critically low. Few journalists really press the question of how to solve the problem or address the stark choices we face if the problem continues. Who is working to fix this? We all know what the problem is – how will it be solved? Spoiler alert… reuse, conservation, rain water, storm run-off are inadequate to keep the Southwest’s economic development moving forward. To that end, we have put together this paper outlining a solution to supply the US Southwest with a sustainable supply of ‘new’ water.
Why is this important to us? We are Global Water Farms (GWF), a deep tech environmental start up located in La Quinta, California. Here, next to the Salton Sea, the mega-drought/lack of water has exposed the playa or lake bed that contains pesticides and fertilizers which then get blown into the air as dust – causing high rates of asthma in the communities near the lake. Over more than 20 years nearly $200m has been spent on feasibility studies and other research to fix the issues at the Salton Sea. It is only now that small wetland projects and dust suppression projects are being implemented – these are symptomatic fixes or ‘band-aid’ solutions that do nothing to address the underlying water problem. It is wrong to consider the water related health and environmental crisis at the Salton Sea and water supply in the US Southwest as two separate issues. The problem is one and the same – not enough water. By fixing one, you fix the other – I explain below.
The US Southwest cannot continue to develop and prosper without ‘new’ water – the Colorado River continues to decline – even with the recent rains, we’d need 20 good years of rains and snow pack to begin to refill the impoundments like Lakes Mead and Powell. From the time the dam gates on Glen Canyon Dam closed, it took 16 years to fill Lake Powell in good water years when all the other impoundments were already full. Our whole premise is that ‘new’ water needs to be manufactured to mitigate the current drought and to supply water for future expansion. The US Southwest is headed for a major economic decline because of a lack of water – the last census showed a trickle of people leaving California for the first time. If the Colorado River does not recover and federally mandated cuts continue, a flood of people will leave to seek opportunity elsewhere. ‘New’ water must be manufactured now to avoid the negative societal consequences of the drought in the US Southwest that could result in a major migration eastward.
So how does one get ‘new’ water? In short, it’s about taking unusable water like ocean water or brackish ground water and desalinating it. Two years after applying, we are in the last stages of being issued a Conditional Use Permit to build our first full scale pilot project on a small portion of the 642 acres we own on the east side of the Salton Sea. Our patented technologies use solar energy to desalinate water. We do this without membranes, without boiling water and with Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD). One modular unit can produce three acre feet (AF) or 978,000 gallons of distilled water per day which is enough water for 10 households per year. Inputs; sunshine and salty water – Outputs; distilled water and salt. We are constructing our pilot to confirm its production and other performance parameters meet our projections. Once we complete the testing, then we will be ready to go to market, scaling up large projects with our modular approach.
Above, I wrote I would explain how to ‘fix’ water for the US Southwest. The Salton Sea is 223 feet below sea level – using a siphon pipeline, ocean water can be transported to the Salton Sea (Reservoir) from the Gulf of California/Sea of Cortez. To avoid impacting the environmentally sensitive ecosystem at the north end of the Gulf of California, ocean water will be pumped into Laguna Salada from inland wells fed by salt water intrusion. Laguna Salada, a large dry lake in Baja, is 32 feet below sea level and will be filled with salt water from the wells. From there, salt water will be siphoned into a pipeline that will fall 223 feet and generate hydroelectric power before delivering the water to the Salton Reservoir. Once the Salton Reservoir is full and the playa is covered, the health threat of toxic wind-blown dust will be eliminated. GWF renewable-powered ZLD desalination can take the sea water coming into the lake, desalinate the water and put it into the Coachella Canal which abuts our property. Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD) and Metropolitan Water District (MWD) will convey it to LA and other coastal cities via a short connector pipeline between the Coachella Canal and the Colorado River Aqueduct.
We understand that advocating for a huge cross border project to arrange for the delivery of between 2-4m acre feet of water per year from Mexico with new technology is a bold plan. This is why we feel the way to gain support for ocean water importation, is to develop a ‘bridge project’ to start the implementation now – before this crisis completely overtakes the Colorado River. This is a ‘shovel-ready’ project – unusable brackish ground water from under Imperial Valley should be pumped into the Salton Reservoir.
There are 14mAF of brackish water under the Imperial Valley in an unconfined aquifer from 100 years of irrigation. Pumping this water into the Salton Reservoir will benefit the farmers by lowering the water table under the fields while filling the Salton Reservoir in 2-3 years. This will also serve to cover the playa and mitigate the dust/health issue with water that is 1/6th the salinity of the Salton Reservoir. By showing that ‘new’ water can be sustainably manufactured at the Salton Reservoir using solar ZLD desalination and delivered to the Coachella Canal for further conveyance through California’s water distribution network, we demonstrate that developing ocean water importation is a commercially viable and environmentally sustainable way to supply freshwater to California and the rest of the Southwest. However, this can only happen if the Salton Reservoir is full – two problems fixed by one solution.
This approach also provides the only road map for successfully developing Lithium Valley and underscores why ‘new’ water is essential. Not only will water be needed to build and operate the infrastructure necessary to mine lithium, but the need for water is also compounded by the housing, schools and other services needed for a growing population. An IID board member said it best regarding water for the Imperial Valley – “if we can’t get our water from the Colorado River – there is no plan B”. Should cuts be made to California’s allocation of Colorado River water, it could result in the fallowing of agricultural land. My point is that if Imperial County has to fallow farmland, where in the Imperial Valley is the water for processing the lithium in Lithium Valley going to come from in light of a continuing drought and federally mandated cuts? More fallowing?
Our proposed solution provides a one way flow of water from the ocean to taps in LA and is a system that will pay for itself through incremental increases in the fees that water users pay as opposed to depending on government funding. This approach works with water wheeling – for example, Las Vegas could pay for desalination infrastructure at the Salton Reservoir that would supply LA. LA would then give up a like amount of water from its Colorado River allocation to be delivered to Las Vegas. The same could be done for any area in the Colorado River Basin that receives its water from the Colorado River.
There is an added bonus to our system that makes it unique in the world of desalination – specifically, brine management. You may be asking what do we do with all of the salt that comes out of our system. RO systems typically pump their hypersaline waste brine back into the ocean and other systems use evaporation ponds. The Persian Gulf has more than 850 RO desalination facilities around it and their effluent is adversely affecting the water chemistry and marine life. In our discussions with Saudi Arabia, they are very interested in our technology not only as stand alone, but because our system can be plugged into the effluent stream of their existing RO facilities – creating twice the water, no environmental damage and a new green construction material industry.
If you know about desalination, then you know that 1 acre foot or 326,000 gallons of ocean water contains 43 tons of salt. Every ocean water desal unit we deploy will generate 129 tons of salt every day. We have found a green way to monetize our salt waste stream – encased salt based construction blocks. Our salt based construction blocks are designed to replace cement cinderblocks and the carbon emissions they produce. Each ton of cement cinderblocks creates one ton of carbon emissions. Creating 2m AF of water a year will replace 3.44 billion cinderblocks a year with a green alternative. This would be equivalent to removing 86m tons of carbon emissions per year.
The US needs its leadership to develop a “New Water Strategy” and grow a new water supply. It will not be easy, in fact one needs to think back to the effort required to build the interstate highway system, to win the space race, for victory in World War Two, to dominate the industrial revolution and then the digital revolution. This is the next great challenge and it can unite all Americans in a great quest to build a sustainable model that teaches the world how to develop the planet healing infrastructure of tomorrow.