Regulatory Reform

Government is Giving Desalination a Salty Reception

Why every state should care

As droughts sweep the nation, leaving economic destruction and growing uncertainty in their wake, new solutions are desperately needed to alleviate growing water scarcity and ensure access to clean water at competitive prices.

Ongoing droughts in states like California, New Mexico and Texas have already caused significant damage to state economies. A UC Davis study pegged economic damage in California at $2.7 billion during 2015 as a direct result of water shortages. Another study conducted by University College in London found that a massive drought in the Midwest is having major impacts on other states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kansas.

Desalination technology could play an important role in alleviating water scarcity and providing users with long-term price stability. If states hope to address the water crises, they must seriously assess opportunities created by desalination and commit to clearing away barriers that inhibit widespread use of the technology. While other nations like Saudi Arabia and Israel successfully utilize desalination to mitigate water shortages, the National Academy of Sciences observed that onerous state and federal regulations impede the development of new facilities in the U.S.

Many different methods of desalination are available including reverse osmosis designed to make seawater or brackish water suitable for residential, agricultural and industrial applications. It works by forcing large quantities of saltwater through layers of superfine membrane to filter out salt and other dissolved contaminants. Desalinated water can then be treated with chlorine and minerals to match clean water standards before being delivered to customers.

Large desalination projects are already taking shape in states like California, where Poseidon Water Corporation recently completed construction of a 1-billion-dollar desalination plant in Carlsbad. The plant provides 50 million gallons of drinking water to San Diego County residents per day and is the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, able to cleanse water at $2,131 to $2,367 per acre-foot. While San Diego water users will see an increase in their water bills of $5 to $7 per month, the cost of desalinated water is capped and will not increase even if shortages persist. On the heels of the Carlsbad plant, over a dozen new desalination facilities have been proposed along the California coastline.

States like Florida and Texas have also seen large desalination facilities come on line and are discussing the possibility of permitting additional plants. The Texas Desalination Association reports that 100 inland desalination facilities currently provide 138 million gallons of water per day throughout Texas. While this may sound impressive, it represents less than 4% of the 4 billion gallons of water produced daily by approximately 12,500 desalination facilities located in 120 different countries. Notably, 60 percent of these facilities are located in the Middle East where desalinated water accounts for about 70 percent of the region’s water supply.

Yet, despite the growing need for abundant new sources of clean water, burdensome regulations and the protracted permitting process continue to discourage needed investments in the American desalination sector. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences observed, “desalination costs found elsewhere in the world may be lower than those that can be realized in the United States because the permitting and the costs of meeting environmental regulations tend to be higher in the United States.”

Poseidon Resources spent more than a decade navigating a web of complex federal, state and local red tape, including numerous lawsuits from environmental groups before construction even began. The California regulatory process is so cumbersome that many refer to it as “the 800-pound gorilla” involving state and regional water boards, air boards, environmental reviews and the state Coastal Commission. Even if a company successfully navigates these barriers it is still required to comply with no fewer than nine federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, Rivers and Harbors Act, Clean Drinking Water Act, Resource Recovery and Conservation Act, Solid Waste Disposal Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, Hazardous Materials Transportation Act, and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Under federal law, all desalination projects are required to obtain source water permits, potable water permits and waste permits prior to construction. Source water (feed water stream) permits address the location and means of obtaining the source water used by the desalination facility. Potable water (finished water stream) permits address the use of the finished water produced by the facility. Waste (concentrate or waste streams) permits address the treatment or discharge of waste streams, including concentrate, chemical waste from cleaning processes and any other waste associated with the operation of the facility. All three layers of permitting impose costly environmental reviews and monitoring requirements that can take years to comply with. The National Academy of Sciences concluded that “overall, the costs and time involved in permitting processes are significant and, regardless of the capacity of the facility, the regulatory requirements involved in the process are approximately similar.”

Though water continues to be debated in the political arena, the reality is droughts are lengthening, and demand for water is growing as populations increase. Solving the water crises requires a comprehensive approach that embraces technologies like desalination to increase water supply while improving efficient allocation of existing resources. State governments and federal regulators face a clear choice: continue down the path of “800-pound gorilla” style regulation, or simplify and streamline policies to encourage the development of new desalination plants and water technologies.

In Depth: Regulatory Reform

In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson said that “the sum of good government” was one “which shall restrain men from injuring one another” and “shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry.” Sadly, governments – both federal and state – have ignored this axiom and…

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